Greetings! I hope you had a fantastic Thanksgiving with smooth, safe travels. I sure did, and I discovered possibly the best day of the year to fly within the U.S.: the Friday after Thanksgiving. While everyone was out shopping, I was in the air enjoying some quiet skies and super-cheap deals: My brother bought a one-way LAX–JFK ticket for $109 the day before, while I cashed in some miles [12,500] for a nonstop one-way LAX–Toronto ticket. My plane was so wide open the flight attendants told passengers, “You can spread out—there’s plenty of room!” When was the last time you heard that?
Now to the good stuff: In case you missed last week’s newsletter, I went on a preview cruise of the world’s largest passenger ship, Oasis of the Seas! While in Fort Lauderdale, Florida I made a couple side trips, one to Orlando via Amtrak with a stay at Walt Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Resort, the other to stay at a brand-new swanky hotel in Delray Beach. We also have our intern Ben taking us to Engelberg, Switzerland for some fondue and snowbiking.
SOUTH FLORIDA TO ORLANDO
I needed to be in Orlando for one of the travel industry’s premier conferences, Phocuswright. I looked into pretty much all the options for traveling to Orlando from Palm Beach. It’s only 170 miles, so I thought about renting a car and driving, or taking Greyhound, but I didn’t want to deal with the I-95 traffic. Flying such a short distance would have been a waste of time, and all the nonstop flights leave from Miami (MIA) or Fort Lauderdale (FLL), not Palm Beach (PBI). So I took Amtrak.
Amtrak has two trains a day working the Miami to New York route (the whole trip takes 26 to 31 hours), and they both connect West Palm Beach and Orlando. I boarded the Silver Meteor in West Palm Beach (WPB), where the train left on time at 10:17 a.m. and arrived in Orlando (ORL) on schedule at 1:43 p.m. Along the way we made four brief stops. What I liked best was the spaciousness, and of course the price. The normal fare is $32, but I paid just $24.50 for a one-way ticket since I’m a AAA cardholder (you should be too) and I purchased my ticket online three days in advance.
AMTRAK TO ORLANDO
I worked on my laptop almost the whole way. Each row (it’s configured 2×2) had two outlets so each passenger could plug in to prevent their batteries from draining. There wasn’t Wi-Fi, unlike some European trains I’ve been on, but I did get online using my Sprint Wireless card, which I rent from RovAir.com (to avoid Sprint’s two-year contract). The train was the perfect option. Not only was it the cheapest, but it was also the most comfortable. There was plenty of legroom—the seats were actually better than those in most domestic flights’ first-class sections. My coach seat was 19 inches wide and I had 24 inches of legroom (I measured it). There was even a leg rest and clean pillows. Actually, the whole train was clean (including the bathroom), and there was plenty of overhead space.
If I got hungry, there was a dining car with lots of options: salads, hamburgers, chicken—and you can pay with a credit card. Some people slept (sleeping cars were available), others worked, others talked on their cell phones (that was the most annoying part of the trip, having to listen to people on the phone). At times it got a little too bumpy to focus on a computer screen. That’s when I would take a breather, stare out the window and watch orange plantation after orange plantation pass by. TIP: Although it’s usually hot in Florida, be sure to bring a sweater because the air-conditioning is cranked up on the train.
NOTE: The conductor doesn’t say, “All aboard.” Bummer.
A few of the passengers were oblivious of others, like the Russian guy two rows away who was speaking very loud on his cell phone; most of the passengers had the volume of their cell phone ringers set to the max with the dumbest ring tones you’ve ever heard. Why can’t everyone set their phone to vibrate? Is it that difficult? To loosen the blow, bring a noise-canceling headset.
WHERE TO STAY IN DISNEY
I wanted to stay at the travel conference’s host hotel, the Omni Champion’s Gate, but it was sold out. So instead I checked into the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort. That was a mistake. Not because the Dolphin Resort was not a nice hotel, but because it was 10 miles away from the conference and taxis in Orlando are crazy expensive. I know what you’re thinking—I should’ve rented a car—but I was only there for two nights and… I got lazy. Instead I ended up supporting the local economy by paying roughly $40 each way.
Most of the taxi and limo drivers that I encountered in Orlando were from Morocco, Haiti, or another Caribbean Island. Along the way I learned that if one is going several miles, metered taxis are either the same price or more expensive then hiring a luxurious town car for a flat fee. And some of the drivers were open to bargaining if business was slow, as most of them rent the cars at a daily rate from Mears Transportation. My two favorite drivers were Nelson (cell 321-388-1015) and Burt Spaulding (cell 646-345-0749).
RENT A HOUSE
But next time a conference is at the Omni and it’s overbooked I will either rent a car, stay at the nearby Reunion Hotel, or better yet rent a house from Homeaway.com like my buddies did for $450 for the week (four bedrooms and a pool).
WALT DISNEY WORLD DOLPHIN RESORT
So there I was staying in the heart of the Walt Disney World Resort at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort. The resort is located in between Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios and is really nice, but for me personally it would only be worth staying there if I was attending an in-house conference or traveling with kids, since they offer complimentary transportation to Walt Disney World Theme Parks and have the Extra Magic Hours benefit.
WHAT THE HOTEL HAS TO OFFER
The resort is huge: Between the Dolphin and its neighbor the Swan Hotel there’s 2,265 rooms, 17 restaurants, 5 pools, 2 health clubs, and tennis courts. And unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any of them. However, I did notice the resort had an odd mix of guests—lots of American families, tons of business travelers attending conferences, and a large number of foreign couples, (mainly honeymooners). No offense Walt, but Disney would be the last place I would want to spend my honeymoon—unless it was a shotgun wedding and my kids were already toddlers.
SWAN AND DOLPHIN RESTAURANTS
What I can tell you about the Dolphin: The elevators are fast (very important to an impatient guest like me), the rooms come with Westin-branded Heavenly Beds that are too comfortable (it makes it difficult to get out of bed), decent water pressure, soft towels, and Starbucks coffee with to-go cups.
What’s really innovative about the resort is that they just launched a restaurant application available for the iPhone and iTouch. The application features menus, descriptions, photos, and reservation information for all the restaurants on-site, including celebrity chef Todd English’s bluezoo, Don Shula’s Steak House, and the Il Mulino New York Trattoria. The resort can be reached at 800-227-1500 or SwanDolphin.com.
ORLANDO TO DELRAY
On the way back I took Amtrak out of Kissimmee (KIS), since it was closer to the Omni Hotel, and into Delray Beach (DLB). I negotiated a flat rate of $40 to the train station, which was a bargain since it was a 17-mile drive. I took the last train of the day, which left at 1:32 p.m. and got in 40 minutes late at 6 p.m. The most memorable part of the trip was having a cool seatmate who looked just like CC Sabathia and a little kid sitting behind me shouting CHOO! CHOO! most of the way—It brought me right back to childhood.
I go to Delray Beach often since my sister and dad usually spend their winters there. In fact, this year I’ve been a remarkable 10 times. I almost always stay at their place, but if they have house guests then I usually end up at the Delray Beach Marriott. During my most recent visit their guest rooms were empty, but I still didn’t stay with them. That’s because the first independent luxury hotel in Delray opened up a few weeks ago, and I had the privilege to be one of the first guests to get the inside scoop.
The Seagate Hotel & Spa is located on East Atlantic Avenue just a couple blocks from the beach and an even shorter distance to all the fine restaurants on Atlantic Avenue. When I rolled up the first thing I noticed—besides the 5,000-gallon aquarium populated with colorful sea life—was the service. Approximately 200 area residents were hired to tend to all of the property’s operations; in this economy they are just appreciative to have a job, and it shows. Everyone I encountered, from the bellman to the GM, was super friendly.
The hotel has 162 guest rooms that feature contemporary designer furnishings from the upscale Wendell Castle Collection (I’ve never heard of it but the staffers made such a huge deal about it that I figured you might have). I was in a standard room with warm, dark woods and a connecting door that led to the room where my dad stayed. He snores like a hibernating bear, so I know the rooms are built solid—I didn’t hear a peep from him. The window/patio doors are hurricane proof, and slide smoothly and quietly (my biggest peeve about the nearby Marriott), but these didn’t block out the street noise entirely.
All the rooms have dream-like bedding outfitted with fine linens, oversized cloudlike pillows, and a giant down comforter. Between the blackout curtains and the 42″ flat-screen LCD TV (with a DVD player), it was difficult to focus on work (Internet is free in the lobby, $9.95 in-room). There’s also an in-room gourmet refreshment center with a microwave and Keurig coffee maker.
What stood out the most was the marble bath, which has a sliding open wall above so if you’re soaking in the tub or in the separate shower you can still look out the window at the incredible Florida sky. The Gilchrist & Soames toiletries and sponges were a nice touch and what’s crazy is that the towels are so new and soft that they don’t even absorb that well.
Throughout the hotel, including in the rooms, there are motion-detection lights, which saves who knows how much energy. Other standout energy-saving features include toilets that offer full- or half-flush options, which is typical in most parts of the world but North America.
The hotel has three restaurants. The signature dining experience is the Atlantic Grille with indoor and outdoor seating. The executive chef came from the Palm Beach Yacht Club and features contemporary American cuisine with a focus on locally sourced seafood. My dad and I ate there on Friday night and the place was absolutely pumping. The in-crowd were sitting either outside along the railing for cocktails or inside at the loud bar listening to the talented piano player.
WHAT WE ATE
We ran into my sister’s neighbor, who’s a social butterfly, and he and everyone in his party were raving about the food, decor, and service. I had creamed of corn soup ($7) to start, while my dad had fried oysters ($12). I debated between the steak salad with soba noodles or braised beef short ribs ($28) and decided on the latter. It practically fell off the bone, but it was so filling I only ate half. My dad devoured his halibut special ($29) and we finished with chocolate lava cake and pistachio ice cream ($9).
ETC. CAFÉ AND GIFTS
Another place to eat on property is Etc. Café and Gifts. It’s a cute, bright, airy café next to some of their shops and was the only place showing growing pains. The service was slow and it took a good 25 minutes for our cappuccino, chocolate chip muffins, and ham, egg, and cheese sandwiches ($4.25) to be delivered.
SEAGATE BEACH CLUB
The third restaurant is located about a mile away at the Seagate’s private beach club. They have a brand-new trolley and a couple of Mercedes to whisk guests back and fourth (no charge) so they can take advantage of the beach (there’s water-sport equipment rentals for scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing, and kayaking) or have a casual lunch.
LUNCH AT THE BEACH CLUB
The public can’t walk in off the street, as it’s private club, so they don’t take cash at the beach club (you charge everything to your room). My dad and I ate lunch out on the patio; I had the beef tenderloin and beefsteak tomato salad ($13) and my dad had tuna Niçoise ($15). We passed on dessert since they offer the best cookies sitting out on the bar for free; chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, and s’mores—yikes it was tasty.
Back at the hotel there’s a narrow outdoor pool, small state-of-the-art fitness center (with a Kinesis machine), and an 8,000-square-foot spa with seven treatment rooms. The Seagate Spa uses Amala certified organic skin-care products, approved at only four other spas throughout North America. The space is really a nice spa and well run. My dad loved the amenity kit that they give you upon arrival; it was filled with a tooth brush, razor, deodorant… FYI: My dad said their steam room was the best he’s ever been in and he looked forward to going to it each day.
HOT SHELL MASSAGE
I signed up for the Seagate Spa’s signature treatment, the Hot Shell Massage. That’s right, hot SHELL, not stone. It costs $150 + $30 tip for 50 minutes. These hollowed shells are filled with magnesium and they stay hot for an incredible 80 minutes. Eve, a four-year veteran, did an excellent job rubbing me down and putting the edges in between my toes and other crevices. She also taught me that calling a massage therapist a masseuse is like calling a flight attendant a stewardess. I had no idea.
The Seagate Hotel is offering a special introductory rate of $159/night through December 20, 2009. For more information or to make reservations, please visit TheSeagateHotel.com.
FYI: In case you want a bigger gym, or you aren’t staying at the Seagate, check out my friend Ashley’s gym, Gym 111. It’s up the road on Atlantic Avenue and visitors are more than welcome. Their day pass is $20, or $80 for the week. For more info log on to Thegym111.com.
Here’s a one-minute video of my stay at the Seagate Hotel.
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