I’m lost in thought as I relax on the window seat in my room at the Four Seasons Hotel Miami, sipping a mojito and watching, alternately, yachts slipping by in Biscayne Bay, the flash of traffic 12 stories below and the setting sun.
I’m on a Miami vacation, and yet I’ll admit that I expected to be more shaken than… soothed. Cities like this achieve mythic status, their sizzling, swanky reputations built as high as this hotel. So I expected big skies, big beaches and a big scene.
But now, as I sit annexed above the bustle, daydreaming about my mid-morning massage, the outdoor café’s peaceful water wall – meant to dampen the sounds of the city – and Acqua's seafood fare, I’m struck by how positively pastoral my hot trip to Miami is turning out to be.
I’ve gone to the city – that I’m sure of. I’ve left my own bustle behind, traveling over hill and dale. I’ve brought my sunglasses and bikini. Emily Post would unpack my bags and state with aplomb that I was headed for the country.
But as they’d say in 19th century England, I’ve gone to town. The distinction being, I muse, pulling on a complimentary slipper, that towns are hubs of prosperous activity, mazes of rails, hotbeds of innovation. And the bucolic countryside just the opposite, a restorative balm to the taxing demands of the city. But in that case, I wonder, which have I fled to? Have I discovered country luxury in the town? Have I left the city for… the city?
The inquiry would please Dickens. As I climb into bed between crisp, hotel-white sheets (already turned down) for a nap before dinner (which will be duck with apricots – a country delight), I vow to examine closely the not-so-great divide between town and country luxury.
Restoration and Relaxation
The town balladeers of the 19th century celebrated the cigar and the motor car, I remember, as we deliver our wheels to the valet at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa. Standing before the 12-story hotel, which sports a 50-foot guitar out front, is a clutch of well-heeled young professionals laughing over cigars. If country luxury is spiked these days with a bit of the cosmopolitan, I wonder if city style returns the favor.
In our room, which provides a view of the hotel's abundant gardens, we find comfort, style and luxury. No detail is too small, and no amenity too excessive.
In the morning, we jump into the fray, or what English poet Thomas Randolph dubbed “the chargeable noise” of great towns. There are no black sack suits or duck trousers here – sorry, Emily Post – but plenty of beautiful people zipping around. We head for the glamorous 24-hour casino, which, with near 190,000 square feet, is buzzing with activity. I gleefully realize that this is exactly like the Victorian’s billiard rooms, on a much larger scale, of course.
Polite society was loathe to play parlor games with dice – lest they be accused of gambling – but card games were common and called “tables.” An attendant whisks us away into the newly refurbished poker room, boasting Florida's newest smoke-free, live action poker room with 50 tables dedicates to Omaha Hi-Lo, Texas Hold 'em and Seven-Card-Stud. The chime of 4,100 gaming machines outside reduced to background music. It's the ultimate entertainment district where you'll find your favorite table games like Blackjack, Baccarat, Pai Gow Poker, Let it Ride and so much more.
Eventually we’re drawn to the Tower of Power, a spectacle of multi-screen video displays and an amped-up sound system in the center of the casino. It’s a dizzying vision of swimming martinis and lucky winners buying drinks all around. It’s prosperity, in every sense of the word. My husband and I are quick to join in the convivial spirit and make new friends.
Later, I drag my husband out to the grounds, where we find a courtly pool and guests reclining in traditional Seminole Chickee poolside cabanas – thatched huts that are anything but primitive, with TVs and refrigerators inside.
When the Victorians used it, down the country meant to go down the slope of land, or as the rivers ran. In this case, the river is the tranquil Steinhatchee and our destination Steinhatchee Landing Resort. Set on Florida’s nature coast, the resort is nearly hidden from the road by tall stands of cypress and pine. But as we drive slowly toward our cottage, under the dappled light and over a creek, we learn that preservation of the natural state of things is a priority here.
Authenticity is too, I note, judging by the exterior of our Florida cracker cottage. We’ve seen perfect Victorians also, as well as a white country chapel with stained glass windows (poetically named Dancing Water’s Chapel), a koi fountain with a statuesque Venus rising out of it and a small vineyard. The resort’s 35-acre landscape is a romantic tribute to 1920s Florida.
That changes when we enter the cottage. We find ourselves in a dimly lit retreat, the Honeymoon Cottage, the centerpiece a double-sided fireplace with a wide, come-and-sit awhile hearth. A candle on the mantel fills the room with the fragrance of apples, and the impressive stereo system plays soft music. In the bathroom, a whirlpool tub overlooks the gas fireplace. More upscale spa than rustic cottage, I think. But a closer look reveals wide slat antique pine floors, wood beams crossing the high ceiling and a bed plump with pillows. A rag rug, wicker dining set and country kitchen complete the look. We spark up the fire and curl up on the comfy couch in the cool, scented dark.
At sunset, we walk the grounds. We find a bench and a grill placed next to our cottage, an important asset, for this is scalloping country. The river spills right out into the Gulf here, so swimming, canoeing and picnicking are favorite pastimes.
We opt for the nature trail. Soon we’re enclosed in cedar and magnolia, surprised by open expanses of wildflowers and indulged by a particularly chipper pileated woodpecker. We make our way to the 100-year old barn, where some of the livestock lives. The petting zoo is home to goats and ducks, and a glittering lagoon is twirling with lotus and lily pads. The stately Presidential cottage – once occupied by a vacationing Jimmy Carter – is a country estate indeed and has a view of the river, which has turned a deep green in the waning light. If we had lanterns, I’d pick some herbs from the vegetable garden for dinner.
In the morning we dine in the Welcome Center’s breakfast room, sitting in farmhouse chairs and enjoying the jams and jellies. On the walls are plaques, awards and photographs – I spy a lovely spread in Southern Living magazine. With 32 rooms on the property, it feels like a small village.
In the 19th century, country sections each had their own dialects and social mores. Here in the fresh, unexpected luxury of Steinhatchee, the sense of peace and harmony keeps my husband and me quietly relaxed.
Our senses were engaged in Steinhatchee, it’s true, but mine are equally enticed when I unfold on the massage table at the Four Seasons Hotel Miami. As the therapist drizzles warm oils on my back and I hear the gentle clacking of stones that makes this signature treatment, the Splash De-Stress Ocean Stone Massage, so significant, I consider my luxury tour.
At the Four Seasons – where we’ve dined in what felt like a secret garden, the Bahia Terrace (located on the pool terrace) has comfortable lounge furniture and underlit trees facing an 18-foot water wall. It’s the tallest building in Miami and downtown to boot, but it’s an oasis of calm up here in the spa.
In the Palm Grove Pool, where we sat in chaises in the water, palm trees shaded us, and it was quiet enough to while away the afternoon with a book. Even the martini bar keeps it intimate and simple, and banks of floor-to-ceiling windows throughout the hotel invite the outdoors in.
The lobby has sweeping marble floors, a serious Miami and Latin American art collection and thumping Cuban beats at the Bahia Terrace make this a stylishly vibrant retreat, it’s a retreat nonetheless. While I’m wrapped in a sumptuous body cocoon, my husband is using the business center’s high-speed Internet access to catch up on work. High-speed wireless is also available everywhere in the hotel, including the pool terrace.
Later we’ll dress for the Dining Room, with its elegant assortment of vintage wines. I’ll toast the Victorians, who appreciated elaborate dinners and candlelight. I’ve decided that town and country luxury is a state of mind. An infinitely dynamic one.
It’s not difficult to come by pastoral pastimes at Omni Amelia Island Plantation. With live oaks, salt marshes and savannahs to explore, you’ll want to pack a lunch and stop in at Amelia’s Wheels. Just one of many services at the sprawling but secluded resort, you can rent Island Hoppers and bikes to coast around the grounds. Guided Segway tours are also available. With seven miles of trails and sites like the Sunken Forest (one of the last uncut maritime forests) along the way, take a bike to find that perfect patch for picnicking.
Omni Amelia Island Plantation provides expert guides for naturalist tours to explore the Amelia's natural habitats and its inhabitants. Three championship golf courses and a bevy of clay tennis courts at Racquet Park beckon, too, offering their own glimpses of this preserved paradise and a chance to match up in the temperate Atlantic breeze. The Marché Burette provides a gourmet food market, deli and old fashioned store for afternoon refreshment before returning to your elegant oceanfront suite.
In a similar spirit, the White Orchid Inn & Spa at Flagler Beach celebrates the fresh beauty and simple luxury of nature. The inn is a romantic escape with a sleek, art deco décor that compliments its breezy beachside location. You'll find rooms offering ocean views, private balconies, post beds, sitting rooms and jacuzzi baths.
Sea salt scrubs and the Moor Mud Facial and other holistic treatments available in the bright and breezy spa, and a dip in the inn’s mineral pool will restore the weariest city slicker. Full breakfasts, afternoon wine and appetizers and a constant view of the dazzling Atlantic coastline keep guests sated and inspired.
There’s nothing small about the indulgences at St. Augustine’s Small Indulgences European Day Spa & Salon. The massages offer a range of approaches, from the acutely clinical to the merely relaxing.
Steamships were marvels in the 19th century, merging freedom, speed and leisure. At the Hyatt Regency Pier Sixty-Six in Fort Lauderdale, the lush garden marina and Aquatic Center are testaments to the tradition of haute boating for sport and pleasure.
At this landmark in the “Venice of America,” you’ll find a yachting center and dock bustling with mega yachts, a three-pool waterfall oasis for swimming and water taxis to the beach, all set along the Intracoastal waterway. The Aquatic Center offers luxury yachts of all sizes for charter, each professionally staffed and accommodating everything from weddings to sportfishing excursions.
For uptown types, anchor yourself at The Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach, a Mediterranean-style resort complete with terra cotta touches and mission bell towers. After recently undergoing a $130 million dollar transformation, the Ritz now includes a new 42,000 foot Eau Spa, complete with a Self-Centered Garden by Cornelia. The concierge will arrange polo (seasonal), museum visits, croquet outings, as well as water and land tours.