ORLANDO – I’ve visited Florida more times than all the other U.S. sun destinations combined. Growing up in Southwestern Ontario, it was the go-to holiday spot for my family. We loaded up the car and headed down I-75 once or twice a year, usually at Christmas or spring break but even in the summer, too.
I’ve continued that into adulthood, visiting at least once a year, and have seen most of state, from Key West to Jacksonville to Orlando and Tampa. I honeymooned there; I’ve taken my wife and kids often.
I’ve always enjoyed Florida, its warmth, its beaches and its golf courses. It’s always been a dependable, accessible place to find some sun, especially during the long, cold Canadian winters.
But it’s always struck me as a one-dimensional experience, with the exception of perhaps Key West and Miami’s South Beach. Yes, I know the state has multiple layers deep down, as anyone who’s read a Carl Hiaasen novel or spends more than a week at a time knows. But Florida can be a never-ending series of theme parks, plazas, outlet malls, highways, chain restaurants, souvenir shops and flat golf courses for the casual tourist.
After a recent visit, however, I’m happy to say that I’ve found some nuance in Florida.
On a January trip with my family, from our base in Orlando, we hit all the usual hot spots, including Disney World and Universal Studios. But we also discovered that not everything, whether it was the accommodations or the golf, is cookie-cutter.
HILTON: My family stayed for just five of the 10 days I was in Florida. (School beckoned for the kids.) We split our time between the Sheraton Vistana Villages Resort in western Orlando and the impressive new Hilton that’s near the Orange County Convention Centre.
The Sheraton offered a perfectly practical and comfortable stay – a reasonably-priced, two-bedroom suite nicely accommodated our group of five.
But it was the three-year-old Hilton that seemed out of – and above – the norm. The three-winged white tower, which is within walking distance of the convention centre and hyper-busy International Drive, managed to somehow feel like a retreat.
This apparently was by design.
As Hilton rep Lisa Cole and PR consultant Laura Phillips Bennett told me over breakfast one morning, co-owner RIDA Development Corp. (Hilton owns a portion and manages the property for Rida, who also owns the ChampionsGate public golf facility in Orlando) didn’t want just another boxy hotel on the strip to serve the business people who use the convention centre.
He wanted, Cole said, more of a resort that told visitors: “Bring the family.”
So the hotel is decked out with features you don’t see in most Orlando hotels that cater to a business audience: a luxurious spa, a massive pool complex and a variety of dining options.
(Hat’s off to executive chef Louis Martorano, whose many delicious concoctions include his “screaming cupcakes,” which contain one unique ingredient – ice cream.) “When you drive up front, it feels like business,” Bennett said. “When you go out back, it’s all play.”
From my south-facing window, I could see the entire pool complex, which includes a main pool, a private pool for adults, water slide and “lazy river.” Behind, there’s a nine-hole putting course on real grass.
It seems to me this sort of hotel represents a new thinking in the industry: Hotels realize that families nowadays often come along with the spouse who is there on business.
From a golfer’s perspective, the Hilton would be an excellent base. There are more than 80 courses in the three counties that comprise Orlando and area, and all would be easily reachable from the Hilton.
BAY HILL: After the kids went home, I continued exploring Orlando with a stop at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge.
Talk about a different Florida experience.
The lodge is a throwback to another time – and place. Although luxuriously appointed after a 2007 renovation, the 70-room lodge has a quiet, homey and understated feel – so much different than the glaring artificial world of plazas and multi-lane roads just outside the gates.
On the second morning of my stay, I was half way to the dining room for breakfast when I realized I was wearing on my feet just socks. Feeling so much at home, I’d forgotten my shoes.