By Georgina Cruz
Special to North Palm Beach Life
Polynesia and Italy right here in Florida? Oh, yes! This year, with the pandemic waning but still around with occasional new variants and international snap lockdowns here and there, we wanted to enjoy getaways closer to home like we did in 2021. Since we were saving a bundle on international flights, we decided to splurge on luxury accommodations.
We opted for two “staycations” that gave us experiences and flavors of Polynesia and Italy right here in Florida: Three days at a “palazzo by the sea” at The Breakers Palm Beach and four days in the “South Seas” at a house on stilts on a lagoon at Disney’s Bora Bora Bungalows at the Polynesian Village Resort in Orlando.
Italy in a Florida icon – A 538-room palazzo inspired in the 16th century Renaissance Villa Medici in Rome, The Breakers Palm Beach sits on 140 acres of manicured lawns adorned by beautiful gardens and majestic royal palms next to the Atlantic Ocean. One of Florida’s most iconic resorts –it could be dubbed America’s castle by the sea—it was the brainchild of industry magnate Henry Morrison Flagler.
When he came to Florida in the 19th century, he was not the typical visitor coming for a swim and a day of sandcastle building. He envisioned Palm Beach as a new destination for relaxation and he built a different castle here. The present hotel (two predecessors fell victims to fires) was built and decorated as an Italian palace in 1926 with the help of 75 Italian craftsmen brought over by Flagler to decorate its ceilings and public spaces with frescoes and murals. This is perhaps The Breakers’ most memorable gift to travelers: its palatial aspects that give guests like us looking to re-live visits to Rome, Florence and the Italian Riviera, the feeling that we are no longer in Florida, but in a palazzo in Italy.
From the moment my husband Humberto and I arrived in the resort, which holds the Five Diamond designation from AAA, the Italian influences were evident in a fountain inspired by one at the entrance to the Boboli Gardens on the Pitti Palace grounds in Florence, and in the hotel’s breathtaking 200-foot-long grand lobby –with decorated vaulted ceilings, elegant furnishings, floral arrangements, and chandeliers.
And the palazzo aspects were reinforced in various public spaces including The Circle. One of 10 resort restaurants, The Circle has ocean views and is worthy of an opulent European palace with 30-foot-high ceilings, frescoes and murals depicting scenes from the Villa Medici and the Villa d’Este with its Tivoli Gardens east of Rome.
Our Classic Suite with partial ocean view was lovely, comfortable with generous living room, very comfortable king bed in the bedroom, all the modern conveniences including sumptuous linens, luxurious rugs, mini-bar, ample closet space, flat screen televisions, TV in the bathroom mirror, bathtub and separate shower, complimentary WiFi, high-end bath products, plush bathrobes and slippers. We had views of the castle-like historic hotel, its manicured grounds and the beach.
Unexpected extras included a faucet dispensing filtered water in the bathroom, a mini fridge stocked with complimentary still and sparkling water in recyclable cans, complimentary bike rental and chauffeured house car service to explore and go to Florida’s “Rodeo Drive” –Worth Avenue—and other island attractions. Our room at The Breakers was the perfect base for indolent, sybaritic days.
After our bountiful – we called them dolce vita breakfasts – at The Circle and the Beach Club Restaurant, our days were spent enjoying the resort’s half-mile of private beach offering opportunities for relaxation and watersports including kayaking, paddleboard and snorkel and scuba tours. The resort’s Beach Club has four swimming pools, five whirlpools and (bliss!) 25 private poolside bungalows for daytime rental. We could not resist and booked one –an enclave with lounge area with chic furnishings, greenery, big flat screen television, refrigerator stocked with complimentary non-alcoholic beverages, bathroom with private outdoor shower, lounge chairs, Wi-Fi, and fabulous views of one of the pool and the ocean.
In these surroundings it was easy to imagine we were in Portofino or some other glamorous locale in the Italian Riviera. The bungalows come with a dedicated concierge who can arrange for umbrellas, extra towels –and, say, a frozen peach Bellini and focaccia Margherita pizza from the Beach Club Restaurant. Talk about the dolce vita!
Other recreational amenities at The Breakers include tennis, golf, chic boutiques, fitness rooms and a spa. For dinners, the flavors of Italy we were seeking abound at HMF (Flagler’s initials, formerly the hotel’s Florentine Room) including the warm onion and Reggiano dip, the salumi platter of cured meats and aged cheeses, “Nonna’s” Meatballs and Gravy Bowl and Abruze Pizzette. The Gianduja Chocolate Torte here with caramel sea salt gelato was sublime.
For more tastes of Italy, the hotel has The Italian Restaurant with such delights as bruschetta, chicken parmigiana and chocolate gelato and cannoli for dessert. What can I say: Well, delizioso! Like our “Italian staycation” at The Breakers Palm Beach. Info: http://thebreakers.com. Info on area attractions: www.thepalmbeaches.com.
Footloose & Fancy-Free in Disney’s Polynesia
At Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort on the monorail line to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, South Seas-inspired rooms, studios, villas and overwater bungalows sitting on stilts on the Seven Seas Lagoon beckon. Wanting to re-live our trips to overwater bungalows in Bora Bora, Tahiti and Moorea as well as our visits to Hawaii before the pandemic, we booked one of 20 “Bora Bora Bungalows” and headed there –our aim was to pretend we were back in Polynesia and imagine for a few days that we were living there, like Paul Gauguin, James Michener and other artists and writers had done, so we did not go to the theme parks.
The bungalows are a short walk through the lush, torch-lit gardens of the AAA Four-Diamond-rated Polynesian Village Resort, with its picturesque longhouses, and form a ribbon near the shore of the lagoon. The bungalows, which are part of the time-share Disney Vacation Club (but can be rented by non-members like us) sleep up to eight guests. They have a main bedroom with big screen television and main bath with jetted tub, separate shower, and television in the mirror; a second bedroom, also with big screen television, and another bath with tub/shower; living area with big screen television; full kitchen with large dining table; washer and dryer, complimentary Wi-Fi, and a deck along the back and one side. The décor is Mid-Century Modern with lots of Polynesian touches including tikis, island-themed pictures and a headboard on the second bedroom that looks like a trio of surfboards.
The deck is furnished with two loungers, table and four chairs, two whimsical hanging chairs and two wind chimes, outdoor shower, and a plunge pool (bungalow guests also have access to the Polynesian Village’s pools including the volcano-themed Lava Pool with a 142-foot water slide, and the quieter Oasis Pool). Speakers on the bungalow’s deck provide Hawaiian music and the soundtrack of the nightly fireworks displays at the Magic Kingdom across the lagoon and the Electrical Water Pageant with colorful floats of sea creatures.
Flavors of the islands include the Tonga Toast (banana-stuffed sourdough bread, battered, deep-fried, and dusted with cinnamon sugar) at Kona Café, a table service restaurant, and it is also available at Captain Cook’s, a quick-service eatery (these are two of 11 restaurants and lounges/bars at the Polynesian Village). Other Polynesia-inspired fare we enjoyed included pork dumplings in a garlic-chili sauce at ‘Ohana, a table service restaurant at the resort, followed by a skillet dinner consisting of wood-fire grilled teriyaki beef, peel-n-eat shrimp, noodles and other delights. A Kona coffee blend is served at the resort’s restaurants. And a couple of afternoons we picked up Dole Whips, a frozen pineapple treat, to enjoy at the resort’s Pineapple Lanai and on our hanging chairs on our deck.
Other leisure pursuits included shopping for island fashions and chocolate macadamia cookies in the resort’s BouTiki and other shops. We picked up some to enjoy back home while we wait for another opportunity to say “Aloha” again to the Polynesian Village and its Bora Bora Bungalows. Info: www.disneyworld.com. Info about area attractions: www.visitorlando.com.
Georgina Cruz is a freelance travel writer based in Vero Beach.
Exploring what to see and do in North Palm Beach and the South Florida area. Your hosts are Pam and Gerry Barker.
Listen to Chapter One of "Panama Palmer"