Call me crazy, but I'm beginning to think I'm never going to get invited to Camp David. I'm not sure if it's because, as I write this, a Republican is in the Oval Office and I'm a card-carrying Democrat, or because I have less political clout than a congressional page. I guess I must accept that there's a good chance my next vacation is not going to be spent at the Presidential Retreat.
Nonetheless, I've found that even those of us without an invitation to "Shangri-La," as President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the private Maryland hideaway, can experience the same kind of luxurious escape as the President of the United States, right here in Florida (sans Secret Service agents, of course).
Though the Sunshine State is not known for its ballot-counting acumen, its status as a posh warm weather destination is beyond reproach. Presidents have come to our sunny climate for the same reasons as their constituents: to relax on sandy shores, unwind at luxury spas and enjoy cuisine prepared by world-class chefs, with no decisions to make other than whether or not to reapply sunscreen.
Vacationing at the same hotels and resorts that have hosted presidents affords us the unique opportunity to follow in the footsteps of our leaders. After a few nights in the Presidential Suite you may be ready to run for office yourself.
THE BREAKERS, PALM BEACH
Host to Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton
Calling The Breakers a resort is like calling the White House - well, a house. Like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., One South County Road in Palm Beach could very well be the center of the civilized world. At any given time, you'll find heads of state, kings, queens, celebrities and presidents at either location. Each has withstood fires, wars, economic depression and renovation to remain symbols of the American Dream.
Sleeping on cotton sheets in the 1,700-square-foot Imperial Suite, I dreamt of Barovier and Toso Grand Chandeliers; custom handmade carpets on Botticino marble floors; hand-carved ceilings flanked by golden cherubs; Renaissance-arched windows overlooking Mediterranean courtyards; flowing fountains; and a staff of 1,800 ready to meet my every need. I awoke to find that it all had come true.
My real-life dream had actually begun with my arrival at The Breakers the afternoon before, accompanied by Michelle, my oldest friend. After sauntering into the Imperial Suite, we called everyone-we'd-ever-met to brag about the panoramic oceanfront and pool views from our five balconies, where we watched the "less fortunate" frolic in the surf off The Breakers' private beach or lounge in chaises around the family-friendly pool; dining room table set for eight (just in case we decided to have a dinner party); tub complete with ocean view and private-label bath crystals; plasma screen TV; and a walk-in closet so big it eclipsed my apartment.
After our fiftieth phone call, Michelle and I dressed for dinner and caught the shuttle to Echo, the resort's off-site Asian restaurant, where rocker Rod Stewart has been spotted on numerous occasions.
When we still hadn't spotted Rod the Mod by dessert, we focused our attention on the delectable molten chocolate lava cake and white chocolate ginger mousse.
Next morning, after breakfast at the casual Beach Club overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, we headed over to The Spa, a 20,000-square foot, Mediterranean-inspired retreat complete with 17 treatment rooms, oceanfront fitness center, lap pool, spa courtyard and private oceanfront sanctuary. The Spa at The Breakers is the proud recipient of the 2011 Forbes Travel Guide Four-star Award and has been recognized as one of America’s Best Hotel and Resort Spas.
The extensive menu of services features massage therapies, including signature body treatments such as body wraps, mineral scrubs and aromatherapy baths; and facials ranging from purifying to age-defying.
After my Guerlain Classic Facial and her Swedish massage, Michelle and I emerged from The Spa relaxed and content. With glasses of cucumber-infused water in hand, we made our way over to the pool and bungalow.
The Breakers has taken as much care in meeting your every need outside of the hotel as it has inside. With 25 bungalows to choose from, the toughest decision you'll be faced with is whether you want a pool or ocean view. Everything else will be taken care of by your personal cabana concierge, from providing fluffy white towels (as many as you want) to delivering gourmet sandwiches, fresh salads and specialty frozen drinks. Go ahead and indulge yourself - in this case, it's your patriotic duty.
Other area diversions include the shopping/dining/entertainment complex CityPlace (in nearby West Palm Beach), Flagler Museum, and the JFK Bomb Shelter on Peanut Island (it's no Camelot). Drive along Ocean Avenue or A1A for an up-close view of famous Palm Beach mansions.
THE LOEWS DON CESAR HOTEL
Host to many past presidents
The Loews Don CeSar is a pink palace fit for a king (or in this case, a president). This flamingo-hued castle on the beach, complete with bell towers and turrets, could make any international dignitary feel at home with its English Axminster carpets, Italian crystal chandeliers and French candelabras. Valets, doormen, bellmen, front desk receptionists and the concierge treated my friend Meghan and I as if we were visiting royalty.
In our room, we "donned" fluffy white robes and relaxed on our wrought-iron balcony, nibbling fruit and cheese, sipping Cabernet Sauvingon vinted and bottled especially for the Don, and discussing foreign affairs. Well, not exactly foreign affairs. More like affairs with foreigners (there was a handsome Italian I had my eye on down by the pool).
The next morning I left Meghan lounging by one of the resort's two pools and headed over to Oceana Spa to meet my masseuse, Lisa, for a 90-minute Spice Island. Perhaps if the President sent Lisa out into the world as a goodwill ambassador, tensions wouldn't run quite so high.
The Spa offers myriad treatments, from massages to sea wraps and body polishes. If you want to spend the whole day being pampered, The Spa also offers numerous packages, including the "Day of Indulgence" (facial, therapeutic massage, pedicure, manicure, wash and blow dry, and a healthy lunch).
Later that evening, Gatsby-esque murals and saltwater aquariums, along with our three waiters - Birk, Ben and Don - greeted Meghan and I at The Maritana Grille. Sinatra serenaded us over the stereo as we supped on prosciutto-wrapped prawns and pan-seared sea scallops. If only all executive decisions were this easy.
After dinner we adjourned to The Lobby Lounge for a nightcap. Sipping on one of the resort's specialty martinis, we listened as Errin, one of the bartenders, told us about his "ghostly encounters" of late. Seems that every time he walks near the lobby elevators the doors automatically open, even though no one has pressed the call button. His cohort behind the bar, Eric, thought Errin was just paranoid, but did admit that it could have been The Don's resident ghost, rather than Errin's sanity, that was playing tricks on him. It seems developer Thomas Rowe, who finished construction of The Don CeSar in 1928 at 300 percent over budget, didn't want to leave his "pink lady." Meghan and I couldn't blame him for sticking around - we never wanted to leave, either.
While you're in town, stop by the nearby Nancy Markoe Gallery where President Clinton shopped while in town.
THE BILTMORE HOTEL, CORAL GABLES
Host to Calvin Coolidge, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton
Brunching in the mirror-walled room of Palme d'Or, surrounded by photos of movie star gangsters such as Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, being served attentively by Chris, our heavily accented waiter, I found it no surprise that The Biltmore Hotel was a favorite haunt of Al Capone. While I'm sure Al timed his visits so that they didn't coincide with those of President Coolidge, we were somewhat disappointed to learn that we had missed President Clinton by a matter of days.
However, we made sure we didn't miss the Sunday Brunch. Served outside in the courtyard cafe (with seating both there and inside the Palm d'Or restaurant), nine food stations overflowed with 130 dishes, including fresh fruits, smoked salmon, sushi prepared by two chefs, pastas, salads, fresh seafood, and a dessert table with enough pastries, pies and chocolate to make even Al go straight for a taste.
We finished brunch in time to catch the last historical tour of the day. Led by Gay Bondurant with Dade Historical Trust, our small group of tourists and locals set out for an hour-long tour.
Built in 1926 by George Merrick for the then-astounding sum of $10 million ($9 million more than was originally estimated), The Biltmore is a study in opulence. Modeled after castles in Spain, with Greco-Roman columns, Moorish-patterned ceilings and Romanesque arches, the different cultures that contributed to this National Historic Landmark reflect the international contingent that flocks to the hotel today.
The resort's pool has its own interesting history. Aquatic goddess Esther Williams performed here, and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller taught visitors to swim in the 700,000-gallons of crystal-blue water.
The only disappointment on the tour was that we were unable to see the legendary Everglades Suite, as it was booked. The two-story suite, which boasts hand-painted ceilings, a coral rock fireplace, Roman bathtub and (my favorite part) Tiffany perfume amenities in the marble-floored bathroom, can be yours.
The nearby Village of Merrick Park offers upscale shops and eateries in the heart of Coral Gables.
HAWKS CAY RESORT, DUCK KEY
Host to Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson
Feeling like a "lame duck" vacationer, I ventured south to the Florida Keys for my last executive escape. I was joined by Marisa, an old college friend. The Keys have long attracted presidents and paupers alike with their sense of isolation, live-and-let-live attitude and, most importantly, plentiful supply of game fish.
Marisa and I arrived at Hawks Cay on Duck Key in time for happy hour. The rod and reel with which President Truman once caught a record sailfish hung above us at the bar. We toasted the former president and his good sense in choosing vacation spots.
After our margaritas and an early dinner at Alma (unlike Harry, we had no desire to catch our own fish), we retired to our Marina Villa. The two-story, two-bedroom/bath villa came complete with a full kitchen, living and dining rooms, upstairs and downstairs decks and spectacular water view.
During Truman's visit, he told local reporters that he planned to stay "as long as my money holds out."
While in the Keys, President Truman was known to rise early, have a shot of bourbon and a glass of orange juice (doctor's orders), and then take a brisk, 30-minute walk. Marisa and I, on the other hand, greeted the morning late with a cup of coffee and the newspaper on the outside deck. We had no intention of walking any further than the pool, where she planned to swim and sun and I would depart for a kayak tour.
As a first time kayaker and stranger to physical activity (other than signing the check each month for my unused gym membership), I became a bit nervous when our kayaking guide, Jeff, warned us that the four-mile paddle would be strenuous. Using charm usually reserved for televised political debates, I convinced a 13-year-old from Truman's home state of Missouri to go tandem with me and split the work.
Duck Key is actually comprised of five islands situated in the Atlantic Ocean. Our group of six kayaks made our way through both rough currents and calm ocean waters around the Key to tiny Tom's Island, where we rested and poked around in the shallows for marine life. During our paddle back to the resort, we passed by cormorants, for which Duck Key is supposedly named, and under the Truman Bridge.
Worn out from the kayak trip, I headed over to Calm Waters Spa for some self-prescribed relaxation. The spa's tropical d'cor, accented by Zen-like additions such as running water, music and dim lighting, is the perfect prelude to pampering. The spa is a "retreat for mind, body and soul," with paradise-inspired treatments such as the Key Lime Mojito Collection and the Calm Waters Signature Facial Treatment.
Entering a private treatment room for my well-deserved Mai Thai Foot Massage, I resolved that this island-style Shangri-La was much more to my liking than the backwoods of Maryland.
ALTERNATIVES TO CAMP DAVID
Other Florida resorts and hotels that have hosted presidents include:
- Cheeca Lodge & Spa in Islamorada (an annual retreat of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush)
- Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora (Calvin Coolidge, Dwight D. Eisenhower)
- 1857 Florida House Inn on Amelia Island (Ulysses S. Grant)
- Steinhatchee Landing Resort in Steinhatchee (Jimmy Carter)
- Boca Raton Resort & Club (Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush)
- Fontainebleau Miami Beach in Miami Beach (every president since Harry S. Truman)
TRUMAN'S KEY WEST
Harry S. Truman once wrote in a letter to his wife, Bess, "I've a notion to move the capital to Key West and just stay."
Truman spent 175 days of his presidency on this tiny island, and while here, he resided in what is now the Harry S. Truman Little White House.
You can walk up the same steps as past U.S. presidents including Truman, who dictated the letter that fired General McArthur from a desk in the living room; Eisenhower, who wrote a state-of-the-union address from the dining room table; and Kennedy, who held a summit meeting days before Bay of Pigs crisis, and tour the house that pays homage to "Truman the Human."
Truman also visited Casa Marina – A Waldorf Astoria Resort on numerous occasions, as did Grover Cleveland, Warren G. Harding and Herbert Hoover.
Commander-in-Chief visits to Key West were also common at The Southernmost House, which has hosted Presidents Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
The Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club opened in 1925, has decades worth of stories to tell. One of my favorites involves a visit by President Calvin Coolidge. Though his term lasted through the best years of the "Roaring Twenties," his unpretentiousness was somewhat at odds with the period's decadent zeitgeist. It seems that Coolidge's simple tastes in cuisine and surroundings left him feeling more at home in the Vinoy's employees' cafeteria rather than in the lavishly appointed main dining room.