Pampering and pumpkins
I was really looking forward to a three-day weekend in Florida at Grande Lakes Orlando, a 500-acre resort consisting of The Ritz-Carlton Orlando and the JW Marriott Grande Lakes. I was expecting a carefree time in the spa, by the pool and sampling the different restaurants. To my delightful surprise, I got this all this plus two of my primary interests—farm-to-table sustainable cuisine and eco-tourism!
The Ritz-Carlton Orlando
The Ritz-Carlton Orlando is a bit more pampering for a bit more ($100) per night than the JW Marriott, with many optional add-ons like the “Club” on the 14th floor. For a little extra cost ($200 approx. per night) you may feel like you’re on a luxury cruise ship with wonderful attendants and gourmet meals being served day and night. Lobster salad rolls, shrimp cocktail, mozzarella and tomatoes, and cocktails and wine along with a mélange of desserts are presented. Another perk of the Club—a wake-up call—will have organic coffee delivered to you in the morning, exactly the way and time you request. The level of service and friendliness is something one rarely experiences—staying at the Ritz-Carlton kind of spoils you for life!
A special dining experience
The first night, a small group of us had the privilege of eating at The Chef’s Table adjacent to his kitchen. From the cozy dining room with vaulted ceilings we could see Head Chef Mark Jeffers preparing the five-course meal while we enjoyed different wine pairings. We started with an Amuse Bouche of Steak Tartar and Carpaccio with a fried quail’s egg on top paired with South African “Ernie Els” Cabernet. Other delicacies included a 2” square pork belly with braised figs and red wine reduction, arugula salad with poached pear, and chicken with a red quinoa salad and simply roasted chimici mushroom bush. Finally, there was a flounder set atop a puree of celery root and topped with sautéed celery.
With each course, the chefs that prepared that meal came out and introduced themselves and their processes. All food is sourced within 70 miles. The dessert was the icing on the cake: a key lime pie made by French chef Stephane Chéramy—with a “Happy Birthday” to me written on it, since I decided this was the perfect place for a birthday party! For The Chef’s Table experience, the maximum seating is 10 and breakfast, lunch or dinner can be a special and intimate affair ranging in price from $125 up to $325 per person depending on the wines selected.
The Grande Lakes Spa…
…is where I had the best massage ever! What made it so great? The special aromatherapy (oil scented with lemon grass) combined with the specialist Deidre’s calming personality and strong hands. I finished with a steam bath enhanced by eucalyptus-scented face towels and cucumber eye masks. You could spend all day there and have lunch at the spa pool café “Vitale”. The spa is smack in the middle of the Ritz-Carlton and the JW Marriott. An outdoor cabana (extra amenity) has two lounge chairs draped with towels, TVs and waiter service. I ordered a Salad Nicoise—seared tuna over field greens, sliced fingerling potatoes, haricot vert with wasabi vinaigrette. The tuna was cooked perfectly and friendly Dominican waiter Hamlet added to it all.
The Deluxe King room
Tucked inside this down “nest,” I felt like a duckling atop the super comfortable mattress and down featherbed. With the down comforter, six down pillows and luxurious cotton sheets, you may never want to leave the bed! The bathroom has a white marble shower and an extra-large soaking tub. I appreciated the attention to detail, seen in things like the dimmer switches on the lamps and the blackout curtains. The balcony (all rooms at RC Orlando have one) overlooked the pool, golf course and Shingle Creek Reserve in the distance.
The Eco tour
The Adventure Experience far exceeded my expectations. I was convinced the tour would be some sort of a made-to-look-authentic eco-experience since The Ritz-Carlton Orlando is only 20 minutes from Disney. I was wrong!
The Shingle Creek is located behind the Audubon-certified Greg Norman golf course and is part of a 23-mile waterway. Our leader, Eric Gilhart, led our group of two kayakers and two canoes down the river amidst the many birds.
It was raining lightly but we didn’t mind getting wet in the 70-degree temperatures—the rain even added to the experience. Beautiful roseate spoonbills, white egrets, hawks, great blue and smaller green herons seemed to congregate for us and they also loved the rain. One of the most frightening sounds we heard was a turtle being crunched to death by a rather large alligator. Eric soothed us by saying “Bad news for the turtle, good news for us, now the alligator won’t be hungry!” Shingle Creek is absolutely loaded with wildlife. The landscape with hanging Spanish moss, many tropical plants and snails on steroids created a Disney-like atmosphere, only this was real and we were getting exercise paddling away. The guides are all nationally certified and the cost is $60 per person for the two-hour tour.
After the tour, we had lunch at “Fairways Pub,” drinking Coloradan Fat Tire beer and eating scrumptious Kennebec potato chips. Chef Talbert shared his secret recipe. We also ate grouper atop the house salad and filet mignon sliders that were passed around the table in the English-style pub.
Adventure on ropes
After lunch, we tackled a challenging ropes course. I opted for the “tikes” ropes course, which is only 10 feet above the ground as opposed to 30 feet! Even at 10 feet, I was tightly and securely fastened by Smart Belay hooks that cannot unhook unless they are unhooked one at a time. Still, I was glad I didn’t attempt the much higher “adult” course! Maybe one day! The ropes course is $40 for adults and $20 for children staying at Grande Lakes and slightly higher for outside guests.
Primo and Whisper Creek Farm
The restaurant Primo is overseen by Chef Melissa Kelly (whose other restaurant I had visited in Rockland, Maine) and is located in the JW Marriott. Melissa’s concept is fresh food and sourcing locally with Italian flare, and the place is named after her Italian grandfather. Some of the gardens are right outside the JW, where I witnessed a chef gathering ingredients for the menu. I was excited when I heard Melissa Kelly was one of the chef’s preparing the dinner at Whisper Creek Farm—a semi-annual event that I would be attending the next night.
The Whisper Creek Farm event
A multitude of vegetable dishes with an Italian accent made me feel like I was at my grandmother’s table: escarole, Brussels sprouts with garlic, cannellini beans, string beans, roasted beets and kale. There were Southern specialties as well, like spicy shrimp and grits and barbecued everything. Specialty cocktails like apple-pie martinis made from moonshine whiskey and sangria in mason jars were popular along with the only organic brewed beer in Florida—from Orlando Brewery. Pumpkin “pies” served in edible mini pumpkins coated with dark chocolate and filled with custard were among the creative dessert offerings. Southern rock music filled the air to complete the fabulous outdoor party.
A night tour
Armed with gas lanterns, we walked through the neatly planted rows of kale, Brussels sprouts, carrots, and onions as Chef Kelly pointed them out. The Whisper Creek garden’s impressive vegetables were all on display beneath the full moon and the glow of the lantern light. The tour was a perfect way to end a balanced weekend of adventure, relaxation and delicious home-cooked cuisine. Witnessing the organic vegetables—the main attraction of our exquisite farm-to-table dinners—in their natural surroundings brought to life the magic of sustainable farming.