Florida is America’s second-most-visited state — California is the first — and attracted more than 126 million visitors last year. But there’s another, quieter Florida that exists alongside the one that is so deservedly popular. Beyond the beach blanket and amusement park crowds, the Sunshine State has several new small hotels of real character, as well as one of the most interesting restaurant scenes in the country.
We began our recent trip on Amelia Island, 35 miles northeast of Jacksonville, and then headed south to Winter Park, near Orlando. From there, we continued to Miami Beach. Finally, we drove to the Gulf Coast along Highway 75, concluding our 800-mile road trip in Sarasota, where a world-class cultural scene belies the city’s population of fewer than 60,000 inhabitants.
Amelia Island is a 13-mile-long Atlantic Coast barrier island justly known for its gorgeous beaches and golf courses (including the oceanfront Golf Club of Amelia Island), as well as plush resorts like the 446-room Ritz-Carlton. With its wide sidewalks, diverse architecture, palmetto palms and live oaks draped with feathery jade-green Spanish moss, the 50 square blocks of Fernandina Beach’s historical district form the core of a lovely small town.
In the 19th century, a steamboat service between its deep-water port and northern cities like Boston and New York turned it into a stylish resort town that heralded the beginning of Florida’s tourist trade. But after businessman Henry Flagler built the Florida East Coast Railway, many visitors moved farther south. Fernandina Beach was rediscovered when the Ritz-Carlton opened in 1991.
We had chosen to stay at the Amelia Schoolhouse Inn in Fernandina Beach, a 17-room property that was created in 2017 through the renovation of a sturdy 1886 red-brick schoolhouse, set within walking distance of numerous antiques stores, lively bars and excellent restaurants.
On arrival, the hotel’s manager, Amanda Mitchell, was exceptionally warm and welcoming, immediately inquiring if we needed dinner reservations. Our Premium King Room (Room 16) proved to be light, spacious and attractively furnished, with a high ceiling, a rag rug, a quilted red-and-white coverlet, parquet floors, a small sofa and good lighting. The bath was well-lit, with a white porcelain pedestal sink and combination bath and shower. Although these weren’t true luxury accommodations, they were comfortable and well-thought-out.
Having settled in, we went downstairs for a swim in the hotel’s outdoor pool and there fell into conversation with a couple from New Haven, Connecticut, who were pausing on their annual migration south to their winter home in Naples. As well as being generous in their praise for the inn, they recommended that we go to the Palace Saloon — supposedly Florida’s oldest bar — for a drink before dinner.
Once a favorite haunt of the Carnegies and Rockefellers, the Palace Saloon turned out to have a stamped-tin ceiling, an inlaid mosaic floor and mahogany caryatids behind the bar, all part of a beautiful décor that was personally designed by Adolphus Busch, founder of the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis. After a cocktail, we strolled to Burlingame Restaurant, which occupies an attractively decorated bungalow and serves an appealing modern American bistro menu. Our meal, which included oysters on the half shell, charred octopus, braised beef short ribs with cauliflower-and-watercress purée and locally caught Mayport shrimp with grits and fried okra, was excellent throughout.
As we checked out of the Amelia Schoolhouse Inn, we reflected that it is exactly the kind of small, comfortable and stylish hotel that makes a destination come alive by putting you in direct touch with local history.
Extremely friendly service; historical charm.
A noisy ice machine in the hall.
The only meal served is a light continental breakfast. For something more substantial, head to Amelia Island Coffee, a short walk from the hotel at 207 Centre Street.
The following day, we drove three hours south to the pretty little town of Winter Park. (Located 7 miles northeast of Orlando, it offers a convenient base from which to visit Universal Studios, SeaWorld and the various Disney parks, including Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon.) Even if such attractions do not appeal, Winter Park is a well-groomed, pedestrian-friendly place, built around six lakes linked by bougainvillea-dotted canals. Its brick-paved, boutique-lined main street and charming architecture are a welcome antidote to Sunbelt sprawl.
Winter Park developed at the end of the 19th century, when it became a seasonal refuge for wealthy families from the Northeast, which explains why the Georgian or colonial architecture of many of the houses would not look out of place in Greenwich, Connecticut, or the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia. These handsome homes are best viewed on one of the hourlong pontoon boat tours offered on Lake Osceola. Winter Park also has one of the best small museums in the South, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, the holdings of which include the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the first design director at his family company, Tiffany & Co., founded by his father, Charles Lewis Tiffany, in 1837. This includes jewelry, pottery, paintings, glass, leaded-glass lamps and windows, as well as his chapel interior from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and objects from his Long Island country estate, Laurelton Hall.
The 112-room Alfond Inn opened in 2013 and was named for Theodore and Barbara Alfond, Rollins College graduates who gifted their alma mater hundreds of works of art. The hotel is owned by Rollins College, and all profits from the property are donated to the Alfond Scholars Program. Art from the Alfond collection is displayed in the public spaces at the hotel.
Reflecting the Spanish Mediterranean architecture of many of the buildings on the Rollins College campus, the cream-colored Alfond Inn has a terra-cotta roof, Juliet balconies and a large glass awning over its arched front doors. On arrival, the valet service was prompt, and our bags were quickly scooped up by a friendly bellhop. The front desk staff were efficient, if not especially effusive, and the lobby was bright, attractive and decorated with impressive contemporary art, including paintings by Alex Katz and mobiles by the Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno in the glass dome of the central atrium.
Our Premier Room was divided between a bedroom with a striped fitted carpet in tones of blue, gray and green and a sitting area with a writing desk, sofa and a pair of white-marble-topped coffee tables. The bath provided a single sink set in a white-marble vanity, a glass-enclosed shower and a soaking tub. Spacious, tranquil and well-maintained, these were very pleasant accommodations, albeit not ones at the forefront of luxury.
The inn’s amenities include a fitness center and an outdoor pool, plus Hamilton’s Kitchen, serving “traditional Southern fare, prepared with a modern twist.” The restaurant is named in honor of Hamilton Holt, president of Rollins College from 1925 to 1949, who was renowned for his amiable habit of inviting too many people to dinner at his home. Apparently, faced with chronic overcrowding, he would invariably say to his guests, “If you can find a chair, you’re welcome in my kitchen.” Alas, despite this charming tale, the food at the restaurant proved uninspiring.
The great modern art collection; comfortable rooms.
The cooking at the restaurant is uninteresting; the surcharge for valet parking is unwelcome.
There is a guided happy-hour tour of the hotel’s art collection on the first Wednesday of every month.
From Winter Park, it is a four-hour drive south to Miami Beach. There, the new 77-room Four Seasons Hotel at The Surf Club has become the city’s chicest address. Located in Surfside, a pretty place of around 6,000 inhabitants, the hotel was a fascinating architectural project, which required a 12-story tower with glass curtain walls to be integrated into the Mediterranean-style Surf Club, built in 1930 by Russell Pancoast. The new tower was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Meier, who achieved international fame with buildings such as the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art and the Getty Center in Los Angeles.
The original members’ club was inaugurated on New Year’s Eve 1930, having been the brainchild of business mogul Harvey Firestone, founder of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company. He had sailed along the coast aboard his yacht, the Marybelle, accompanied by entrepreneur and publicist Carl Fisher and real estate developer Irving Collins. This being the Golden Age of Hollywood, the trio conceived of a refuge for stars seeking to escape the reporters and the flashbulbs.
The spacious bar occupies the club’s former ballroom and invokes the glamour of The Surf Club in its heyday, when it attracted everyone from Cary Grant and Winston Churchill to Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor.
Today, the original coral-stone clubhouse is the entrance to the hotel. Its light-filled lobby boasts travertine floors, a coffered ceiling, ebony library tables piled with art books, groupings of sofas with art deco lines, cream-colored club chairs and palms in large terra-cotta planters. The spacious bar, which claims to offer the greatest selection of Champagnes in Miami, occupies the club’s former ballroom and invokes the glamour of The Surf Club in its heyday, when it attracted everyone from Cary Grant and Winston Churchill (who liked to paint here) to Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor.
Our check-in was flawless, from the welcoming bellhops to the friendly receptionist. We immediately loved our spacious Premier City View Room, a category we had chosen not just because the Oceanfront Rooms are eye-wateringly expensive, but because we could enjoy a sea view from the wraparound balcony during the day and contemplate the sunset and the lights of Miami at nightfall. The accommodations were the work of Paris-based interior designer Joseph Dirand. Decorated in tones of taupe, vanilla and oyster, ours came with travertine floors, a pivoting marble table on a brushed-brass stand, plaster moldings, floor-to-ceiling windows and a king-size bed made up in handkerchief-weight cottons. The stunning buff-finished white-marble bath boasted flawless lighting, a double vanity, a soaking tub and a walk-in rainfall shower. Among the many thoughtful amenities, the most appreciated were sea sponges in the bath, Bluetooth speakers and an iPad with access to 200 newspapers, as well as the customary hotel information.
The property features Le Sirenuse Miami, an Italian restaurant that is an offshoot of the legendary hotel in Positano — try the exquisite battuto di scampi (langoustine tartare, fennel, orange zest and Peranzana olives from Puglia) — and the Surf Club Restaurant, a stunningly decorated space by London-based designer Martin Brudnizki. There, art deco chandeliers, terrazzo floors, a color scheme of azure and coral, and a mural by British artist Gary Myatt, which runs the length of the restaurant, combine to create an environment of dramatic retro glamour.
Devised by three-star chef Thomas Keller, the tongue-in-cheek menu offers a section of classic Continental selections, redeemed from banality by superb ingredients and elevated technique. Dishes include Caesar salads that are prepared tableside, crabcakes, braised-beef lasagna and beef Wellington.
Other hotel amenities include private day-use cabanas, a beach club and a spa that offers yoga classes and meditation workshops. Aside from a few surprising hitches in service — slow valet parking, disorganized staff at the beach club, an order mix-up at breakfast — the Four Seasons Hotel at The Surf Club is an extremely impressive property and a perfect choice for those who would prefer to enjoy the energy and dazzle of South Beach at arm’s length.
Stunning interior design; exceptional accommodations; superlative restaurants.
The service can be slightly amateurish.
For an inexpensive lunch within walking distance of the hotel, head to Josh’s Deli at 9517 Harding Avenue. This simple, friendly place serves deli classics, along with an only-in-Miami “Jewban,” a hybrid Cuban-deli sandwich with pastrami, Swiss cheese and pickles on Cuban bread.
Beginning just a few miles west of Surfside, Highway 75, popularly known as “Alligator Alley,” spans the Everglades and the Big Cypress National Preserve. It took us three and a half hours to reach Sarasota, the Gulf Coast city where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus once wintered. We’ve been to Sarasota many times and have come to love this small city’s relaxed atmosphere, walkable downtown, gorgeous beaches and thriving cultural life. The best luxury hotel here is the Ritz-Carlton, but there is also a Hyatt on Siesta Key, where Crescent Beach is often described as the most beautiful stretch of sand in America.
Sarasota has long lacked a small hotel that captures the city’s arty personality. On this occasion, however, we were able to try the 89-room Sarasota Modern, which opened late last year in the rapidly developing Rosemary District, a historic downtown neighborhood where luxury townhouses are being built for retiring baby boomers who want to be within easy reach of the city’s restaurants and cultural institutions, like the Sarasota Opera House.
The design of the hotel channels the aesthetic of the Sarasota School of Architecture, a modernist style that evolved in response to the subtropical climate and local way of life between the 1940s and 1960s. (Sarasota still has many buildings designed in this idiom, including the city’s town hall and architect Paul Rudolph’s remarkable “Umbrella House” in Lido Shores.)
Arriving at the property, we left our car with a valet and entered an airy lobby with terrazzo floors, white cotton sofas and a foliage wall. A friendly young desk clerk delivered the good news that we’d been upgraded to a Residential Suite. This came with floor-to-ceiling windows, a living room appointed with ’50s Danish modern furniture, a dining room and a separate bedroom done in soothing tones of beige and cream. The bath was spacious and well-lit, but disappointingly, it lacked a tub.
During our stay, we were able to glimpse the other room categories. To be happy here, it is clearly important to book a Residential Suite, Deluxe Studio Suite, Deluxe Junior Suite or Balcony Room (with a king-size bed). The Standard Guest Rooms are small, and Lofts are also snug, as well as being awkwardly designed.
Leisure facilities at the hotel include a pool, a hot tub and a cold plunge pool with a waterfall. (The Modern is a 20-minute drive from the nearest public beach, on Lido Key.) The property’s restaurant, Rudolph’s, serves a contemporary American menu with dishes like charred red shrimp with chilled pea purée and grilled peaches, alligator croquettes with black-pepper aioli, and short ribs with polenta cake and chimichurri. There is also a pleasant bar with a good cocktail menu.
Although the young staff are friendly and eager to please, the service still appears to need fine-tuning. (Admittedly, the property has been open only for a year.) Breakfast took an eternity to arrive, and the valet parking system is disorganized. But although Sarasota still lacks a true luxury boutique hotel, The Modern is comfortable, stylish and a notable addition to this charming small city.
A convenient location; good-looking rooms; friendly staff; an attractive pool.
The inefficient valet parking service; the long wait for breakfast.
Just two blocks from the hotel, the Artisan Cheese Company serves a delicious cheese-oriented lunch menu. It also does excellent cheese-tasting classes, which can be booked online.