The Sunshine State is moving upmarket, as Karl Cushing discovered on a recent visit

Like this and want more details? Click here to download and save as a PDF.


A quiet revolution has been going on in Florida. A surge in high-end product, from stylish hotels and restaurants to upscale experiences, is making the theme park and cruise capital a solid sell for bon viveurs and monied couples too.

The local ‘farm to fork’ movement is playing a big part in this transformation. Indeed, with Florida hosting more than 200 food festivals this year, backed by great-value restaurant weeks such as October’s Dine Out Lauderdale, VisitFlorida’s president and chief executive Will Seccombe sees potential to reverse the recent dip in UK visitors, who numbered 1.5 million in 2012.

“There’s the opportunity to re-energise the growth in UK visitor numbers – by talking about the diversity of the options,” he told me, adding, “Agriculture is the number-two industry in Florida, don’t forget.”

Meanwhile, operators such as Funway Holidays are seeing more Brits branching out and discovering new beaches and resorts, such as Anna Maria Island, and making use of regional airports such as Sarasota-Bradenton (SRQ) to form multi-centre breaks.

Here’s how to package Florida for clients with high expectations.

MIAMI




Stay: Where do you start? This year has seen the opening of the 69-room Redbury South Beach, (pictured below, sister to the glamorous Hollywood Redbury), and the sleek Metropolitan by Como, Miami Beach, with historic conversion The Langford set to open this autumn.

Alongside luxury offerings from brands such as Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons sit hot hotels such as the all-suite The Setai, Mondrian South Beach and Fontainebleau Miami Beach, while options such as The Savoy and The Hotel of South Beach offer a taste of the city’s art deco credentials.

For nightlife on tap the W and Viceroy are hard to beat while The Shore Club, Soho Beach House, Acqualina and Sagamore are all solid beach resort options and The Villa By Barton is housed in the former Versace Mansion.

Taste: My personal highlight was taking a guided tour with Miami Culinary Tours around the cosmopolitan South Beach area, with drinks and nibbles from Colombian and Cuban to Italian – perfect for refuelling after trawling the beachfront strip and goggling at Miami’s art deco monoliths. ($55 for adults/$39 under-12s).

The farmers’ market on Lincoln Road is another good spot to grab juices and snacks on the run, while top restaurant picks include River Seafood & Oyster Bar and the latest hot opening, Porcão Farm to Grill.

Treat: This spring saw the launch of three tempting options: SeaFair’s mega-yacht luxury dining cruise programme; E11even, Miami’s new 24-hour club; and The Setai’s opulent new Ocean Suites.

To experience the city’s arty credentials take in December’s Art Basel show or, as I did, take Art Basel Tours’ guided tour around the spray-painted warehouses and galleries in the city’s achingly fashionable Wynwood district.

Florida

WEST PALM BEACH




Stay: From Bradley Park and the colourful Colony to the likes of The Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, there’s no shortage of high-end options, and Hilton is building a 400-room property adjoining West Palm Beach’s Convention centre.

For my money though, it has to be the iconic The Breakers Palm Beach. Built in the late 1800s by Henry Flagler, the man who put Florida on the map, this classy, old, 140-acre dame has it all, from excellent golf courses to a glorious beachfront and spa offering. I had a fine time roadtesting the tasting plates and cocktails in HMF, its classy food and beverage concept launched in late 2012.

Taste: Outside of September’s Flavor Palm Beach and December’s Food & Wine Festival, West Palm Beach’s Clematis District and nearby CityPlace offer ample sustenance.

For a more laidback atmosphere try nearby Delray Beach, home to the popular Savour the Avenue food festival each March. I loved sampling some of the 100 eateries, from the sushi at Buddha Sky Bar to French-influenced fare at Brulé Bistro, and an excellent tasting menu at 50 Ocean.

Treat: Take in a day spa such as Anushka or Maui or combine world-class wellness, dining and golf at resorts such as The Breakers or PGA National Resort & Spa.

To get a taste of how the other half live in America’s richest zipcode take a guided bus tour around the homes of the rich and famous with Island Living Tours, topped off with a window shopping stroll along swanky Worth Avenue.

ORLANDO




Stay: Following last year’s openings by Wyndham and Aloft, Universal showcased the first stage of its 1,800-room Cabana Bay Beach Resort on March 31 and Four Seasons will open at Walt Disney World Resort this summer.

Top marks go to another 2013 opening, the delightful 112-room Alfond Inn, in nearby Winter Park. It’s packed with art, and fuses design with informal cosiness and great food, making it a great Orlando alternative for couples. My dinner of dirty martinis, shrimp and grits, sumptuous steak and crème brûlée was pretty special too.

Taste: For high-end dining consider the intimate Chef’s Table at The Edgewater Hotel or, if the kids aren’t clamouring for Chef Mickey’s buffet, the seven-course seasonal menu at Victoria & Albert’s, at Disney’s Grand Floridian.

Affordable local staples worth a look include Lee & Rick’s Oyster Bar, Luma on Park and Enzo’s on the Lake, a good al fresco option.

Indecisive types can simply head to an area such as Church Street and Orange Avenue; Walt Disney World’s BoardWalk; or Universal’s recently expanded CityWalk.

I can also heartily recommend grazing at East End Market, the classy new artisanal market in Audubon Park Garden District.

Treat: For those hitting the parks, VIP tickets are invaluable, saving hours of queueing, as do guided VIP tours such as

Disney’s full-day Backstage Magic and SeaWorld’s six-hour Elite Adventure Express Tour. Or soar above them on a VIP ‘flightseeing’ tour with Mauiva or International HeliTours.

Nature lovers will appreciate SeaWorld’s Trainer for a Day programme, while Disney’s Animal Kingdom offers Backstage Safaris and three-hour Wild Africa private guided safaris. Dine with your favourite characters at Disney or Universal and even slime them with Nickelodeon Suites Resort’s Ultimate VIP Pass.

FORT LAUDERDALE




Stay: Top picks include the W, The Ritz-Carlton and the Westin. Future standouts include the 304-room Costa Hollywood ‘condo hotel’ (late 2014); 320-room Conrad Hilton (2015); and 1950’s-style Margaritaville Resort (2016).

Taste: Las Olas Boulevard, home to staples such as Grill 401, is a good bet. My memorable eats included a seafood blowout at packed local favourite Blue Moon Fish Company.

A good place to sample food trucks, another culinary Florida staple, is on an art tour of Flagler Arts and Technology Village, held on the last Saturday of the month.

Treat: Guided boat tours such as Tropical Sailing’s snorkelling catamaran cruise down the city’s Intracoastal Waterway offer a fascinating insight into the minted celebrity owners who own the myriad mega-yachts and whopping waterside mansions.

I can also recommend the cookery school run by supremely affable chef Jean Pierre. Listening to his tales and tasting the fruits of his labours made for a memorable day.



SAMPLE PRODUCT




Kuoni offers seven nights on a room-only basis at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach from £1,365, including flights with British Airways from Heathrow and private transfers.

kuoni.co.uk

Travel 2 offers seven nights at The Breakers Palm Beach in a deluxe king room with car hire and return flights from London from £1,559 based on travel in July.

travel2.com

Virgin Holidays offers a seven-night holiday for a family of four staying on a room-only basis in a Courtyard Family Suite at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort with car hire and flights from Gatwick departing July 27 from £5,796.

vhols4agents.co.uk

Attraction World offers character dining at the Disney Contemporary Resort, with its Chef Mickey Dinner with VIP Limousine Fun including deluxe transfers (£79 adults/£60 child aged three to nine).

attractionworld.com

Do Something Different offers a SeaWorld Private Elite VIP Tour accompanied by a private guide and including front-of-line ride access and the chance to feed dolphins, lions and stingrays (£231 adult, £231 child, entry ticket also required).

dosomethingdifferent.com

Funway offers seven nights at the Westin Fort Lauderdale from £899 including Virgin Atlantic flights to Miami from Gatwick on June 19.

funway4agents.co.uk