By Liz Hatton, New York correspondent
Many of my fondest travel memories have been at Ritz-Carlton hotels. I am a huge fan and love the solid reliability of the hotels themselves; the reassuringly traditional décor; the super-friendly and highly professional staff; the welcome glass of bubbly as you check-in; the consistently excellent food offerings, whether it be room service, a fine dining restaurant or the poolside bar; the fantastic facilities of the resort properties and the enviable locations of the city centre ones.
But most of all, I love the Club Level Lounge. I would feel bereft if I was ever to stay at a Ritz-Carlton and not have access to this oasis of calm that boasts around-the-clock delicious snacks and drinks, an array of reading material plus of course its helpful staff. There is something so wonderfully relaxing about knowing you can wander down the corridor from your room and relax with the papers, have a cup of tea (without adding double digits to your room bill and having to leave a tip) or crack open a beer after a long, hot day by the pool. Here in Orlando, we’d pop down for a cup of tea and a peanut butter cookie from the cookie humidor (oh, how I yearn for one with my PG Tips now I’m back in Blighty), a cheeky glass of wine before the sun had even passed the yard arm (without a single disparaging look; better still, positive encouragement from the Club Level staff to crack open a bottle of excellent Prosecco after a testing round of golf), or a few canapés and a board game in the evening with cute lollipop desserts to finish off proceedings. I also love that you can breakfast here too, complete with British newspapers and English breakfast tea. But the view and the service is all-American, as are the fantastic smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels (which you assemble yourself) and the pancakes with maple syrup and crispy bacon.
Our room was exactly what you’d expect from the Ritz-Carlton. In case you’ve never had the pleasure, you can expect quality furnishings, a super-comfy bed (always of the highest quality), pretension-free traditional décor (that immediately puts you at ease), and a spacious, luxurious bathroom filled with gorgeous products and stacked high with fluffy towels and robes. The view from our room – one of 582 – was nothing short of spectacular, looking out over the enormous pool, the golf course and the hotel’s 500 acres, and beyond to Orlando’s famous theme parks in the distance, complete with our own private viewing platform for the spectacular nightly Disney fireworks. Despite being just minutes from the city, the hotel sits at the Headlands of Florida’s Everglades, so all around is fauna. Our cheeky bellboy even said that we’d be able to spy an alligator or two if we looked long and hard enough. Cue my colleague spending a lot of time out on the balcony, with her telephoto lens poised and ready.
The hotel, despite only opening in 2003, has already had its first major refurbishment, and all of the rooms boast top-of-the range amenities. As usual, the kitting out of the room is first-class, with everything you need right there: iron and board; tea and coffee maker; internet, both cable and wifi; a huge television with plenty of channels and movies on demand; and a desk, should you feel the need to work. The Ritz-Carlton folk make staying at a Ritz-Carlton really very easy indeed.
There is a proper “resort” feel to this Orlando hotel, and the shared facilities with the enormous 1000-room JW Marriott next door offer even more to do. A 40,000-square-foot spa, tennis courts, two pools, hot tubs, cycles to ride along the beautiful pathways, nature rides on kayaks, fly fishing and the incredibly forgiving and beautiful Greg Norman-designed golf course. We had already spotted the formidable-looking last hole from our balcony, and were feeling terrified at the sheer enormity of this sprawling, perfectly manicured course. To make matters worse, as we traipsed down to our tee time at 7am, with a bagel from the Club Lounge packed up as a snack, we realised – much to our horror (we are both golfing beginners) – that we were being given our very own caddy for the duration of our 18 holes, thanks to the Ritz-Carlton’s Caddie Concierge Program. After an atrocious, embarrassing few swings on the practice course, we were already terrified that our standard of golf would cause bottlenecks and jams on this winding, sweeping course. But Jason, our caddy, was wonderful, patient and even managed to improve our games enormously. By hole eight he was clutching his hands to his face and telling us how proud he was of us (my colleague, Lisa, had just hit a par on a tricky hole, and I was one-over). He even pointed out photo opportunities, including a young alligator in one of the lakes, much to our excitement.
As we travelled around the spectacular, sweeping 18 holes, Jason ran ahead, fearless of our wild ground strokes, and pointed out a good line to hit, recommended clubs, gave us measurements on each hole, fished our balls from the alligator-inhabited lakes and raked the bunkers for us – I don’t think he’s ever had to work so hard! Nearly six hours and several lost balls later – and, sadly, with just one more par on the scorecard – we returned sun-kissed, aching and exhausted to the Club Level Lounge. The staff were genuinely interested to hear how we got on, so we cracked open the Prosecco and gave them a run-through of all 18 holes plus our alligator sighting. They were genuinely pleased for us.
After our game of golf and glass of Prosecco in the Lounge, we relaxed by the enormous pool and later wandered down to the lobby, with its tinkling piano and bar crowded with sports fans watching live golf on the screens hung above the bar (so American) for a Rioja tasting with the charming and disarmingly young sommelier Kris. (Lisa even won a prize for her wine tasting skills.). Kris was another high point of our stay and his knowledge and enthusiasm not just for wine, but for his place of work, was infectious.
Always the most crucial part of any hotel stay for me, personally, is the food offering. There are two highly-acclaimed eateries in the Ritz Carlton Orlando: Normans, a famed Floridian eatery, and the Vineyard Grill, the hotel’s steakhouse, where we chose to eat. We were lucky enough to have a tasting menu prepared for us by its team of chefs, so that we could sample a true overview of the kitchen’s skills and specialities. Kris demonstrated his incredible knowledge and enthusiasm for wine by pairing some inspired examples with our food.
We started with a glass of one of my favourite Champagnes, a Billecart Salmon, which cut through the sweetness of our sweetcorn ravioli perfectly. The pasta was bursting with freshness from the corn and the array of accompanying herbs and the dish was enhanced with a subtle hint of vanilla. French onion soup followed – a rich, hearty version of this French classic. A crisp, fresh salad of baby iceberg with cured bacon and an intense blue cheese dressing converted my dining companion who usually dislikes both salad and blue cheese. But the best was yet to come. A meaty swordfish fillet, perfectly seasoned and wonderfully tender was served with one of the most exciting wines I’ve sampled. It takes guts and confidence for a sommelier to choose a rosé, but it couldn’t have been more perfect. A Lopez de Heredia 2000 Gran Reserva, it had the depth and complexity of the very best red Rioja but with a lightness that matched the fish perfectly. Our final savoury course of surf and turf was exactly as it should be, but with some outrageously luxurious additions: a perfectly cooked (medium-rare) and deliciously charred five-ounce hunk of prime fillet with a juicy, sweet Maine lobster tail and a piece of seared foie gras, all of which were served with a béarnaise sauce to-die-for (oh, how many appalling versions of béarnaise have I tasted in restaurants that should know better?) and crunchy asparagus. An unbelievable show-off, look-what-we-can-do dish that was just, well, astonishingly good. Does it get any better? Actually yes: when it’s served with a 2004 Baron de Ley Rioja Reserva. Just when we thought we couldn’t eat another thing, a fabulous cheeseboard arrived (well, we had to finish off that Rioja, didn’t we?). Then an enormous pot of tea, sweetened with honey from the hotel’s own apiary. To finish, a trio of desserts including a fine tiramisu and a rich zabaglione, all of which were sensational. But what really stood out for me was the “signature” petit four of chocolate covered peanut butter and jelly. I must have made my feelings clear because were we presented with a little box of them each to take back to the room. So thoughtful.
I can honestly say that the evening was one of the most memorable food and wine experiences of my life. There’s no hiding behind dishes this simple. The lack of foams, soils, powders or quirky ingredients and combinations meant the quality of the produce and the exceptional execution of the cooking shone through. Sometimes simple is best. The service too, was truly special. They walked that fine line between intrusion and attentiveness with the dexterity of tightrope walkers. And it couldn’t have been more clear that they really cared about their jobs and their customers. A common thread that wove its way beautifully throughout our stay.
I adored my time at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes in Orlando. Whether you’re after a base to explore the theme parks en famille, or a grown-up few days of relaxation and rejuvenation, I cannot recommend this hotel highly enough.
The Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes , 4012 Central Florida Parkway , Orlando, 32837, USA
Tel: +1 407 393 4422
Date of review: June 2012.
Liz Hatton stayed as a guest of Ritz-Carlton.