Luxurious Escapes

By: Catherine O' Neal

ADD TO FAVORITES
It's easy to plan a luxury vacation in Florida. Here are a few favorites along Florida's southern tip and into the Keys.

The afternoon sky is pearl blue as we board a 31-foot launch on Pine Island, a little-known isle 25 miles northwest of Fort Myers. We're headed for even lesser-known North Captiva, reached only by a 20-minute boat ride through hushed bay waters.

To remind us that nature still rules here, five dolphins tag behind our boat, leaping and surfing in our wake. They escort us into North Captiva harbor, a watery wilderness of mangroves, cypress trees and leggy egrets. Ospreys pick at fresh-caught mullet in their talons as we check in at the tiny office of North Captiva Island Club Resort.

Nothing about this club seems clubby. No paved roads, golf course or even a hotel, for that matter. Just five miles of subtropical forest dotted with great, big beach houses (and a few small cottages). Which means guests get to play beach-mansion-owner on one of Florida's most serene, secluded islands. The club at North Cap (as locals call the isle) has about 85 privately owned, vacation rental homes that come with golf carts for navigating the sandy lands.

Our cart whisks us across the island, tunneling through dense subtropical hammock. Every now and then, a parfait-colored manse rose above the palm and papaya groves. Our house towers three stories (four, counting the crow's nest) and has four bedrooms. We pull into the "golf cart garage," just off the lofty pool area with wet bar and TV. Upstairs, the great room has soaring ceilings of honey-colored pine. The kitchen, with its granite bar, Belgian waffle maker and chef's pots, is stocked for serious cooks.

Guests who'd rather not lug groceries over by boat can order them online through the club's Web site. In season, Publix in North Cap will stock your kitchen in advance. Instead of testing the kitchen, we decided to dine out at Mango's, one of the resort's two restaurants. The colorful cottage with wood-plank tables has an open kitchen that serves, appropriately, fresh seafood (don't miss the sweet stone crab claws when in season, plucked right offshore).

The next day, we survey our options: Kayaking, boating, jet skiing, tennis or swimming in one of two club pools. But, then, we have our own pool. Besides that, there is the beach, which stretches for five miles and is absolutely deserted. The water is a startlingly transparent turquoise, and the sands pale champagne. Giant driftwood forms exotic beach statuary, and tortoises poke in and out of the coastal forest. We succumb to slumber in the sand.

By sunset, we're blissfully mellow. We've made it back to Sea Mist, a quick walk or a 40-second golf cart ride from the beach. The spacious screened porch off our living room faces due west. The sun dives down straight ahead, turning the island's peaked tin roofs hot pink, before plunging like a fireball into the sea.


Fort Lauderdale

I lived in Fort Lauderdale during the late '80s, when civic leaders were anxious to cast off the city's hard-earned spring break image. That image was gone by the time I left in 1992, but even then Fort Lauderdale was far from sophisticated. Eleven years later, I am pleasantly surprised to find that not only does the city have class, it's also the perfect place to luxuriate. Distinctive hotels and inns, European-style cafés, riverfront parks and couture shopping make it South Florida's emerging elegant escape.

The 204-room Lago Mar Resort and Club, for instance, has been renewed with lush gardens, meandering pools, corridors of coral and green marble, a wine bar with jeweled Deco sconces, a '50s style soda shop and a full service spa. At Acquario restaurant, we enjoyed modern American bistro fare.

Lago Mar's location couldn't be better: Poised at the southern tip of discreet Harbor Beach, it's where the tides dependably deposit fresh sand. The beach is extra-wide and the sea often decorated with cruise ships gliding out from adjacent Port Everglades. Pick a private spot, and the always-amiable hotel staff will arrange a cushy lounge and attend to your every beach need. Many staff members have been here more than two decades; the hotel has been owned by the same family since its opening in 1959.

City sophisticates looking for ultimate, intimate lodging should check in at The Pillars Hotel. A block from the beach, the plantation-style inn rests along the Intracoastal Waterway, its very-private pool deck guarded by walls of palms. Silky linens and down pillows grace the beds, and plush robes await in marble baths.

From The Pillars' dock, guests may board an air-conditioned Water Taxi to dinner - to the beach, museums, a Broadway show or the city's best shopping spots. Columned mansions and mega-yachts shine from the shore, with the occasional $11 million lot (that would be vacant lot) for sale. During our "bus" ride, the captain gives details on dozens of estates, including a $2 billion complex with helicopter pad and 18-car garage.

I hop off the boat at Las Olas Boulevard and survey the atelier studios, antique houses, fine art galleries, salons and design boutiques (some devoted just to gowns or super-chic European wear). French and Italian cafés rest among royal palms and shoe salons showcase the latest from Prada.

I slip into an alfresco table at a Parisian-style créperie and order a smoked salmon and asparagus crépe with creamy béchamel. Across the street, two striking German girls slip inside a modeling agency. When the waiter delivers a glass of Alsace wine and engages me in French, that's when I know: My former spring break city has glamorously grown up.


Islamorada

There's something irresistible about halfway marks. They invite the traveler to temporarily forsake the car, to step outside, feel the terrain, sample regional cuisine and meet the locals.

Islamorada, half-way between Miami and Key West, goes a step further: It summons you to stay. And who can resist, considering the village is a sanctuary of exuberant island culture? Brightly painted art studios and galleries, vibrant cafés, trendy boutiques (including splendid vintage collections) and some of the Keys' most exquisite hotels are tucked among the sapodilla trees.

Before checking out the village scene, check into Casa Morada. This 1950s motel turned tropically-mod lodge has 16 suites with fashionable finds such as carved iron beds, seashell sconces and woven cane chairs. My suite has a cork-floored terrace, open-air Jacuzzi tub and second-floor lanai embraced by palm fronds. It overlooks long, exotic gardens with a rock grotto and bocce court.  Deluxe suites in the Seaview House overlook the Florida Bay, Gulf of Mexico and Casa Morada’s private island with pool and gazebo. From the swimming pool set in a sandy island, I watch great white herons alighting in the Everglades.

Fashion photo producers love Islamorada. In fact, a production team (complete with wispy-waisted models) fills Casa Morada during my stay. The shots taken here and at the nearby Moorings Village will show up in Vogue, Elle and other top fashion pages. Next to the Moorings, luxurious Cheeca Lodge & Spa draws world-class anglers to its Presidential Sailfish Tournament held annually in January.

Islamorada's beaches are beautiful. Since most have private access, one of the best ways to sink your toes in the sand is to have lunch or dinner at Morada Bay Beach Cafe and Bar. A white plantation-style house with watermelon-colored shutters, it has a brick terrace overlooking a stunning beach and bay. Next door and sharing the same beach, Pierre's serves formal French fusion cuisine among furnishings from the Ivory Coast. The elegant downstairs bar is spectacular at sunset. Order an orchid-studded mandarin martini and witness the sand turn pastel. You'll be glad you stopped - and stayed - halfway.

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners

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