Puttin' Off the Ritz
It took considerably more time than anticipated, but the long-promised extreme makeover of the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach takes it to a stunning new level of luxury——even among a string of precious hotel gems fronting South Florida’s Gold Coast
IN THESE DAYS of $1.3 trillion federal budget deficits and $50 billion state budget shortfalls, $130 million may seem like getting off cheap. But for a hotel? Excuse me, for a hotel makeover? That’s almost as much as the incompetent AIG executives took home in bonuses this year. But that was the tab for the longstalled completion of the refurbished Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach, which made a full-on debut this spring with the opening of its 42,000-square-foot spa. Really, 42,000 square feet.
The spa is called Eau. Eau——pronounced “oh”——is French for water. And we drought-challenged Californians know how precious that stuff is. But $30 million just for the spa part of the refurbishing? Yep. Did I mention this is Palm Beach? On South Florida’s Gold Coast?
The relatively good economic news——and who’s not looking for good economic news?——is that this ocean-front, 5-star resort hotel offers rooms for as little as $159 a night. That’s less than half what you’d pay for a room in a three-star Manhattan hotel. And even the rooms are suites, really, with huge baths and separate sitting rooms. No wonder so many New Yorkers are lounging by the pool here.
Ritz-Carlton is synonymous with luxury, and this incarnation certainly is luxurious. But it’s not your daddy’s Ritz-Carlton. For decades, the Ritz has built a reputation on offering guests familiar, upscale——if somewhat staid——surroundings. The result: No matter which Ritz you may choose, from Boston to Bangkok, when you walk through the front door, you might as well be in Pasadena.
The Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach has broken the mold with its redesign and more.
“A sense of place was definitely missing,” says Simon Lewis, investor/owner since 1989. “For example, a Ritz-Carlton must have a fireplace, but why was it here in the front of the lobby where it blocked the ocean view? If it was snowing in Palm Beach and you needed a hot chocolate after a day on the ski slopes, it was perfect.” The fireplace was moved aside to make room for the Atlantic. And in the suites, walls were opened so guests could have an ocean view from their bathtubs.
“You can’t blame the [original] developer for doing as efficient a job as possible, but the world keeps turning; things move on,” Simon says. “We wanted to give a Palm Beach experience, more like a hip Palm Beach home——albeit with 311 rooms instead of 36.” Oh, yes, and a 42,000-square-foot spa.
EAU SPA WAS one of the first things planned for the hotel makeover, and the last project completed five years later. It was worth the wait. The design team from Israel and the United Kingdom was charged with providing something “totally unexpected.” They totally succeeded.
The first image guests see on entering Eau is a clock projected on the lobby floor——with time going backward. That’s the idea of a great spa experience, we’re reminded——feeling and looking younger. Even the piped-in music moves in reverse. Going in, it’s upbeat and sassy. As you move through the spa and begin to relax, so does the music.
You like to sing in the shower at home? The Eau showers provide lyric sheets, laminated to stay waterproof. Starting to feel a bit too sweaty in the sauna? Train your eyes on the snow globe and mock penguin. Getting a little dull in the steam room? Fixate on the disco ball and catch another chorus of “It’s Raining Men.”
The salon even includes a barber shop for nostalgia freaks, with an old-fashioned barber chair and a barber who does straightrazor shaves. One of the staging areas on the women’s side features a mirror with a quote etched into it: “Even I don’t wake up every morning looking like Cindy Crawford.” It’s signed by Cindy Crawford.
The Self-Centered Garden courtyard——which seems such a perfect fit for the Ritz——covers 12,000 of the spa’s 42,000 square feet. It’s an oasis of sounds and smells, where butterflies——real ones——hold center stage. The plantings were chosen specifically to lure the butterflies to the garden——part of the living décor.
“We do everything we can to connect with people on a different level,” says our spa guide. Certainly the “dolled-up” gargoyles with painted fingernails must connect with somebody.
OF COURSE, all of this up-close and personal attention comes at a price. Treatments start as low as $40 but can go up to $400 for one particular facial. Sorry——for $400, I want a new face.
And speaking of new faces, that’s what this place is looking for. Reggie Dominique, the hotel’s sales and marketing director, says the new Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach is focused on attracting a new generation of guests: younger, more affluent, family types.
“Word is getting out,” he says. “This is the new lifestyle of Palm Beach. And our guests are not recession-proof. They’re more savvy and shopping for value. There’s no more ‘Name a price and we’ll come.’ ”
One very welcome surprise: Dining prices here are fair; no ripping off the captive audience. At Breeze, the ocean-side/poolside café, most lunches are in the $14-$17 range. Tropical drinks like the maitai or Bahama Mama are $12. A domestic beer——if you’re comfortable drinking one at a Ritz——is just 5 bucks.
And yes, there are video games for the kid in the family. But remember, we’re talking five stars here. So activities for the youngsters can be somewhat elaborate, shall we say. The action centers around a “clubhouse” called AquaNuts. And this could well be your daddy’s clubhouse. Or your mommy’s.
“Ritz Kids” are offered some rather grownup options. Like an exclusive theater where they present their own plays. There are pool tables, arts and crafts. The girls have their own beauty salon. Boys and girls can also mix music or make videos. And they have their own pool. It used to be called the Tranquility pool, and everybody used it. But the kids liked all of the pool’s fountains, so they took it over. The name Tranquility was soon dropped, of course.
For those who believe it’s Daddy’s job to pay for the vacation——not necessarily enjoy it——there’s even an option for the old man. An expansive business center offers the latest in Internet capability and includes several private offices, each with adjacent patios, where Pops can keep in touch with the home office and listen to the family having fun out at the pool.
When I checked out the suite of offices, though, they were totally empty——I’m happy to report.
If You Go
As usual, there are no direct flights out of San Diego to destinations like Palm Beach. I flew Continental to West Palm Beach, with a stop in Houston, and the flight was tolerable——even with the miserable food options and a $15 charge for one checked bag. (Weren’t those add-on baggage charges supposed to pay for the high price of fuel——when fuel was high-priced?) Rooms and suites at the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach are almost laughably low during low season, starting at $159 (city view) and $469 (suite). During high season, they start at $589 (city view) and $1,999 (suite). For reservations at the hotel or Eau Spa, phone 561-533-6000 or go to ritzcarlton.com/ resorts/palm_beach.