We asked top luxury travel advisors to name their favorite go-to Florida resorts and their responses took us all across the state.
“South Beach is a modern mecca of top-rated hotels and gastronomy, a vibrant cultural and international art scene, sports, entertainment and performing arts,” says Limor Decter of Embark Collective. “The scenic skyline of the beautiful beaches and Biscayne Bay combined with the Art Deco architecture beckons visitors all year round. South Beach is melting pot of culture and cuisine, celebrating the diversity of this cosmopolitan city set against a tropical background.”
Decter reports that her favorite hotels include the Faena, The Setai, The Ritz-Carlton South Beach, the 1 Hotel and W South Beach, Edition, Como and the SLS.
“Each beachfront resort has its distinct character and appeal yet are united by their luxurious level of hospitality,” says Decter. As for what to do when you’ve got time to explore? “South Beach attractions include a visit to Perez or Vizcaya art museums, Wynwood Walls, a stroll or bike ride down Collins Avenue or Ocean Drive or strolling through the Miami Design District. South Beach, known as ‘America’s Riviera,’ is a chic, cultural destination. Lounging on the beach or at the nightclub makes South Beach a perfect vacation [spot] in Florida,” she concludes.
Jacqueline Cittone Magid of Inviato Travel, LLC, also loves South Beach. For families, she recommends The Miami Beach Edition and the 1 Hotel South Beach. “They are always perennial favorites with buzzy pool scenes and a contemporary vibe,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I do love the more intimate and refurbished Betsy Hotel further south on Collins Avenue — it has a wonderful rooftop pool and is across from the boardwalk and has a history and feel that connects you to old Miami.”
Magid also has her favorites north of South Beach. “For those looking for calmer and sophisticated settings (and what I personally like for myself) is the Faena Hotel and Four Seasons Surfside,” she says. “Both hotels are historical landmarks that date back to the old glamorous days of Miami. Both have brought back the spirit in different ways. Faena has a South American glamorous spirit yet still feels intimate, while Four Seasons has this wonderful combination of preserving the old and new. I am looking forward to the new opening of The Celino!”
As for Miami restaurants, Magid has many. “Yardbird is amazing for fried everything — from green tomatoes to chicken to oreos. I love Toni’s for sushi even though it is a dive. Prime Italian is always excellent for Italian. KYU, Asian BBQ, in Wynwood was one of the most amazing dinners with my family (go for Taiyaki ice cream nearby after). MARE at Four Seasons Surfside is a must for an outdoor Italian seafood lunch. Swan was one of the hottest restaurants in South Beach before COVID hit. Owned by Pharrell Williams, [it is] very modern and chic. Pubbelly Sushi in Sunset Harbor is awesome also. Don’t skip the Butter Crab roll or spicy Bigeye Tuna roll atop crispy arroz pegao drizzled in truffle oil and sea salt.”
The Betsy has a chic rooftop bar overlooking the ocean. The hotel provides an “Old Florida” vibe. // Photo: Read McKendre
Stephanie Fisher, the Lake Forest Affiliate of Huffman Travel Ltd., stayed at the Four Seasons Surf Club for Thanksgiving.
“It is a slam dunk for clients,” she says. “It’s perfect for couples, families with young kids and family with college kids, too.”
Fisher reports that COVID protocols are very much in place at the resort. “There are many extra touches, such as spraying down your beach chair, there’s sanitizer everywhere, and you get a temperature check via an infrared iPad upon arrival. Menus are via QR codes and there is a QR code to get connected with the concierge if you want a distanced connection vs. in person at the desk. They make luxury during a pandemic a calming and restful experience with such high-touch moments.”
For Fisher, the team at the resort goes the extra mile to take care of clients. “They are all very much focused on client happiness and comfort with positive energy all around. I spoke with a few of the team members and they indicated that they, as a team, are all thankful for the food deliveries that Surf Club initiated for all of their staff during shut down, [and also] the health care benefits that continued through their shut down. This is a loyal team. They happily worked over Thanksgiving, giving thanks to clients for staying at their property and no ask was ever denied. They treated every guest with such kind, gracious respect.”
Fisher also loves the Thomas Keller restaurant at the resort and overall, gives her stay a very high rating. “I book this with extreme and high confidence,” she says.
The Florida Keys
Samantha Collum of River Oaks Travel is a fan of the Florida Keys. “Beautiful sunsets, crystal clear waters, and an island to match every mood; it’s easy to see why our travelers love the Florida Keys,” she says. “You can spend your days exploring boutiques and trying new restaurants, or on the water in search of the perfect catch or wave. While the Keys have always been a great vacation destination, they’re even more desirable now if you’re looking to avoid major cities and big crowds. Ferry over to Sunset Key Cottages’ 27-acre island or take a sea plane to the even more exclusive Little Palm Island — whichever you pick, these boutique options are the perfect way to social distance with a tropical flair.”
Little Palm Up Close
Lauren Johnson of GypseaBlonde Travel, part of The Journey Group stayed at Little Palm Island last summer. Here’s her report.
“I had the pleasure of staying at the property in June of 2020 and was very impressed with what I found,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
“If serenity is what you’re after, you will find it at Little Palm Island. Once a place where presidents recharged and played, it is still an exclusive retreat where barefoot luxury resides, just as it was in its very early days. After a complete renovation and reopening in 2020, it was wonderful to see how the soul of Little Palm still remains.
“With a maximum of 60 guests, spread out between 30 villas in 15 Palafitos, with no children, no TVs in the rooms, no car noise, you will find yourself quickly slipping into the rhythm of the natural surroundings,” she says.
“No detail is overlooked, from arrival to departure. You are greeted with their signature tropical libation, the ‘Gumby Slumber,’ which helps ease you into island time. Next you board their ‘Truman’ motor yacht, which is a throwback to earlier times with its sleek lines and mahogany planks. You cruise over the water for the short ride to your exclusive piece of paradise.”
Johnson has a great insider tip: “You can really feel like you are being swept away to your own private island in style by also having the option to arrive via seaplane,” she says. “Tropic Airways offers unforgettable flights from Miami to Little Palm where you can start your getaway by spying dolphins and other sea life as you make your way down the breathtaking Florida Keys.”
She says that once you’re on island, you’ll find attentive staff that’s not overbearing. “It’s a perfect balance,” she notes.
“The delicious dining options include a romantic private dinner in your villa, soaking in the sunset on the beach with your toes in the sand with soft piano music playing or enjoying dining al fresco on their breezy outdoor patio.
“The star of the show is really the island itself. Its lush foliage, the flowers, the towering Gumbo Limbo trees and, of course, the palm trees and ocean surround you in a cocoon of tranquility. Be sure to enjoy some time at the Zen Garden, as well!”
For those who want to explore the surrounding area, guests have access to a Boston Whaler to go snorkeling or fishing during their stay. “You could even ask to have a picnic lunch prepared to enjoy out at one of the nearby sandbars ... just you and the sea and no place to be,” say Johnson. “If staying on land is part of your plan, you can float in the tranquil pool, read a book outside your Palafito in your private lounge chairs, or schedule a visit to their relaxing spa.”
“That’s right, the villas at Little Palm are actually in palafitos, which are a blend of a Fijian buré and a luxury hideaway, and are absolute perfection,” says Johnson. “The four poster beds draped in mosquito netting with buttery soft sheets invite you to sleep a little longer, or maybe take a midday siesta. And when it is time to get cleaned up, you have a choice of either a wonderful steam shower indoors, or you can enjoy ‘being one with nature’ in the privacy of your outdoor shower.”
All told, Johnson rates Little Palm Island very highly. “This is definitely one of the top five places that I have ever stayed at, and the accessibility to mainland Florida, and also to the fun of Key West, makes this a destination that would check all the boxes of a perfect island getaway,” she concludes.
Old Seven Mile Bridge, which is currently undergoing a full restoration with expected completion in December 2021, is a popular biking, running and walking spot. The modern Seven Mile Bridge, on the left, is the longest of 42 bridges over water that help to comprise the Florida Keys Overseas Highway. // Photo: Laurence Norah/Florida Keys News Bureau
June Sloane of Protravel International sends clients to Isla Bella, “a lovely property in Marathon, Florida which is halfway between Miami and Key West.”
She reports that clients loved the food service. Rooms are very private and she recommends using the deluxe beachside with veranda (category) as you can walk out from your room.
Protravel Select amenities are included and clients were happy to have early check-in and a late checkout. Lots of watersports are included.
One caveat? “This is not for a high-end client as there are no super-deluxe properties in the Keys but it’s perfect for a couple’s getaway.” Another tip? “Weekend rates are high but weekdays are a great value,” says Sloane.
Magid of Inviato Travel says that Isla Bella is also popular with her clients. “There were some hiccups at opening three years ago but new management has fixed this,” she reports.
She also recommends Little Palm Island, and in the Upper Keys, “I think the family-friendly Preferred Hotels’ Hawks Cay and Cheeca Lodge are among the best choices, especially the newer, private Casitas at Cheeca,” says Magid.
Lastly, she says her clients loved their recent stay in a private cottage at Sunset Key Cottages, which was recently taken over by the Opal Collection. “It’s on a 27-acre island, just a short boat ride from Key West,” says Magid. “The cottages are very pretty with many amenities and the staff is attentive.”
As for dining in the Keys, Magid has her favorites, as well. “In Key West, I recommend Seven Fish and if you love oysters, The Thirsty Mermaid can’t be beat,” she says. “Mid Keys, I like the family-friendly Barracuda Grill (I strongly encourage reservations). In Islamorada, I love Ciao Hound at the Postcard Inn for calamari and flatbread pizzas as you can only eat so much seafood!”
Back in Miami, Barbara Khan of Journeys by the Book is a big fan of The Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne. “Be sure to find out when Geno is working at the bar at Dune. He is an absolute fixture on the Key,” says Khan. “He originally worked at the Sonesta, which sadly was torn down quite a few years ago. He’s a friendly, personable guy. He makes awesome drinks.”
Khan says she has lived on Key Biscayne for 20 years and knows all corners of the island.
“A must-see place there is Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park,” she notes. “You can rent a bike from Key Cycling at the Galleria Shopping Center and ride it into the park. There is a minimal charge to enter on foot or bike. Be sure to time your visit so you can go up in the lighthouse, which is from 1825. They offer tours at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. but not on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. You can spend the day at the beach as they rent chairs and umbrellas.”
When it comes to dining in the park, the casual Lighthouse Cafe is open seven days, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Boater’s Grill has fresh seafood; it’s located on No Name Harbor and is open 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday and until 10 p.m. Thursday to Sunday.
“Key Biscayne is mostly flat and great for walking and cycling,” says Khan. “It’s only about two miles in size, so very manageable.” She also recommends walking or cycling to Mashta Island, connected to the main key by a small bridge.
“A few of my favorite restaurants there are Origin for Pan-Asian and Ayesha for Indian. La Boulangerie is a café with great baked goods and sandwiches. People also love their breakfasts. If you are craving European pastries then go to Piononos. I love the amazing variety of empanadas at The Empanada’s. Novecento is excellent for burgers and steak. It’s Argentinean. Next door to Novecento is Sushi Siam, which is an upscale sushi bar plus Asian cuisine. And in the same shopping center is Artisan Kitchen and Bar. Two favorite kitschy places that are well loved are Donut Gallery, a tiny diner (they don’t have donuts, lol) and Sir Pizza. Be sure to order a side of ranch dressing to dip your pizza in. Sir Pizza has beer and wine. It’s super casual and family friendly,” concludes Khan.
Heading north to Palm Beach, Magid of Inviato Travel says that The Breakers is her favorite resort, and her clients’.
“Everything you could want is at this five-star resort,” she says. “There is a reason why it has a high repeat clientele. I have clients there from festive going back this spring.”
In town, Magid says, “The seven villas at the iconic, stylish boutique hotel Colony Palm Beach are perfect for month-long stays, particularly the ones just renovated.”
She also loves the Four Seasons Palm Beach, “but a high-profile investment banker took it over since spring and you can’t book it! I am excited about the new White Elephant Palm Beach, which opened in November, as I am a big fan of the Nantucket brand. I am really looking forward to the 155-room luxury beach and wellness resort, Amrit, opening soon on Singer Island — I think it will be quite popular for those looking to drop those quarantine pounds and [it] fills a void in the market.”
As for dining around the Palm Beach area, Magid says her favorite restaurants are Buccan and Sant Ambroeus. “Both are always lively with great people watching and deliver consistently delicious food and terrific service in a beautiful ambiance.” She also likes the new Lola 41 (particularly the stunning outdoor courtyard) outpost from Nantucket in the new White Elephant Hotel, and Bice. “I still love Bice after all these years, too,” she says.
And there there’s Orlando, where Samantha Collum of River Oaks Travel does it up in style. “The next time you’re planning to visit the world of magic that is Disney World, consider skipping the themed in-park hotels for something a little more luxurious — the Four Seasons Resort Orlando,” she advises. “This property offers everything you would expect of a Four Seasons, luxurious accommodations, white glove service, and amenities galore all from within the gates of Disney World itself. To add to the magic, they offer guests access to Extra Magic Hours, regular shuttles to and from all areas of the park, and they even have a character breakfast with Goofy and his friends on Saturday mornings!
“After a day of Disney magic, head back to the Four Seasons Resort for a round of golf on their award-winning course, to enjoy some ‘me time’ at the spa, or to splash and play with the kids at Explorer Island — the resort’s splash park. Finally, head to Capa for dinner and a show and end another magic-filled day with a delicious meal and fireworks over the park.”
Northern Florida offers some true hidden gems and that charm is not lost on Becky Lukovic of Bella Travel Planning, LLC.
The Henderson in Destin has 170 guestrooms and eight suites. The resort offers panoramic views of the Gulf of Mexico and the adjacent Henderson Beach Preserve.
“One of my favorite resorts in Florida is the Henderson Beach Resort in Destin,” she says. “The sand is white and powder soft, the rooms are well appointed, and the service is very good. They offer fire pits, two fabulous pools (one with a small lazy river) and a good culinary program. Primrose restaurant with Chef Gary Palm was a delight. The resort also offers lofts for those wanting a more residential feeling. The property has a very popular rooftop bar to watch a seriously spectacular sunset.”
Lukovic says the hotel’s décor is “a delightful combination of southern and seaside and the grounds are definitely Instagram-worthy.” Best part? The property is dog friendly.
“Some colleagues and I did a site inspection this fall and we were quite impressed,” says Lukovic. “The resort definitely changed our perspective on Destin as a Florida destination. Since it’s drivable from Atlanta, it’s a great luxury option for a quick getaway.”
More tips? “The resort is across the street and a short boardwalk from the beach. Their sister property, the Henderson Park Inn sits directly on the beach. We had cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at this property one night and the sunset is spectacular. The Henderson Park Inn is a small, boutique, adults-only property offering the inclusions of breakfast, boxed picnic lunch, beach chairs, bicycles, and happy hour with adult beverages daily.”