Driveable Destinations: The Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes

Within a short span of time, it’s easy to reach some of Florida’s most historic and vibrant communities. In this ongoing series, we highlight some great destinations that will make you want to hit the road. As travelers embark on new adventures, we encourage taking appropriate health precautions.

After weathering a pandemic, a weekend full of perfect spa services, the opportunity to meet new people, experience new tastes and learn new subjects feels all the sweeter.

Located only an hour and forty minutes from Ocala, the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes offers hospitality and a wide range of experiences that would cater to just about anyone—without the hustle and bustle of the city. In fact, from your balcony looking out over the lake, trees and golf course, you’ll easily forget where you are.

When the property had to close at the onset of the pandemic, the management team used that time to renovate guest rooms and make over the pool and luxury cabanas. Being forward thinking during the crisis paid off.

Now open to guests at reduced capacity, the refreshed hotel is offering a new weekend program called Curated Experiences on a monthly basis. These weekend programs are thoughtfully balanced for relaxation and inspiration. The experiences allow for small group time with expert chefs, winemakers, jewelers and auto enthusiasts, as well as unique recreational activities such as fly fishing and falconry instruction.   

Every weekend the Ritz gives guests opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. From doing nothing while lounging in hammocks scattered throughout the property to taking advantage of bike and kayak rentals, bocce ball, tennis courts, the 18-hole championship golf course and swimming—there is something for everyone in the family.

Child’s Play

Although the hotel is perfect for a grownups’ getaway, it also gives families good reasons for a fun Orlando weekend that does not include theme parks. Kid-friendly activities include storytelling, lessons on recycling, arts and crafts, physical activities and table games. It is also possible to arrange a tour of the on-property working farm through the resort concierge, which is a great opportunity for kids to learn about farming and the food we eat.

The hotel offers an in-room kids’ camping experience: they deliver and set up a tent in the hotel suite and provide bedding for each child, a battery-operated lantern, children’s book, stuffed animal and s’more-themed pastry. When combined with the hotel’s concierge nanny services, parents could even take advantage of the opportunity for a date night at Knife & Spoon, a new signature steak and seafood restaurant that will not disappoint.

Spoiled for Choice

What makes the dining options so special is the high concentration of culinary talent under one roof. For example, World Champion Ice Carver and Chocolate Sculptor Victor Dagatan, a 2014 silver medalist in the Cultural Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, creates large chocolate showpieces, fruit and vegetable carvings and ice carvings for the on-site eateries at Grande Lakes, as well as for special events.

For those who are fans of Top Chef, you might smile hearing the banter between Chef Gerald Sombright, chef de cuisine for the aforementioned Knife & Spoon and award-winning restaurateur chef John Tesar. Tesar beat Sombright in the tenth season of the TV competition. Sombright good-naturedly maintains Tesar cheated. But where they do agree is on sourcing and aging beef and they are happy to share the differences between the beef they serve to guests at Knife & Spoon and what they find at other steakhouses. Tesar says, “To have a palate for something, you have to understand what you are eating.”

While there are many on-site dining options between The Ritz-Carlton and the adjoining JW Marriott, here are a few of the standouts: 

Highball & Harvest
This farm-to-table restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a menu created using ingredients sourced from local farms and the resort’s own organic garden. Southern-inspired dishes such as The Southern Spread with pimento cheese, smoked crab and pickled vegetables, and Florida grouper with beans and greens, tomato gravy and fried okra, are popular with diners.

Whisper Creek Farm: The Kitchen
Located in JW Marriott, this charming eatery utilizes ingredients sourced from the hotel’s working farm with its 7,000-square-foot fruit and vegetable garden plus ducks, chickens, quail and bees, located between the sixth tee box of the resort’s golf course and a quiet creek. The casual but creative menu varies from small bites like gourmet flatbreads to salads and burgers as well as meat and cheese platters.

Bleu
This poolside café and bar is the perfect spot to enjoy a frozen cocktail, a healthy salad, a classic burger or the much buzzed about fish tacos. More than just dining al fresco, the casual dress code is so broad it allows for you to slip right out of the pool or off your lounge chair and enjoy a bite in your swim gear.

The Lap of Luxury
What the Ritz-Carlton destination is best known for is its spa—for good reason. At 40,000 square feet, standing three stories high, with more than 40 treatment rooms, a full salon and barber shop, a private pool and Vitale, the spa café, guests could easily make a day of it.

Like the hotel, the spa is operating at reduced capacity to ensure safe social distancing and requires masks be worn by spa guests and workers so services can be provided with safety in mind for all.

What hasn’t changed is the high quality and care that has long distinguished the spa. Signature spa therapies include massages and body treatments, incorporating CBD oil and homegrown ingredients like herbs from the resort’s organic garden, honey from its resident bees and citrus from local orchards. After enjoying their 110-minute Grande Indulgence massage, which includes full body massage, scalp treatment and keratin gloves for hands and feet, I felt like a new person.

As with all destinations, almost equally important is whom you are with. The superlative hospitality that travelers have come to expect from the hotel brand is in special abundance at the Grande Lakes property and, if you are anything like me, it will bring you back time and again to this special destination.

For more information, visit grandelakes.com

Enchanting Experiences

Curated Experiences is an exclusive program hosted by The Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes. They were created to give guests the rare opportunity of engaging in master classes, guided workshops, immersive demonstrations and other such happenings in a luxurious setting. Among the many varied offerings are experiences in mixology, fly casting, putting, cooking and wine pairings. Led by an array of award-winning chefs, winemakers, jewelers, artists, athletes and wellness experts, Grande Lakes will host a series of these weekend-long, experience-based programs throughout 2021. The next Curated Experiences weekend takes place from April 23rd through the 25th.

Guests can explore, learn and celebrate with an array of stimulating activities. For more information, visit grandelakes.com/events/curated-experiences-at-grande-lakes

Although I engaged in several sessions, here are highlights from some of my favorite experiences that I participated in during my visit:

Dry Aging: Perfume and Process with John Tesar
According to Chef Tesar, the average steakhouse serves beef aged 21 days. At this personal session with Tesar, guests were able to taste the difference between steak that was aged 45 days, and others aged 140 days and 240 days, showing how the aging process impacts steak’s flavor. This was the most informative tasting experience I’ve had in a long time.

Falconry
Seeing the large “working falcons” up close and personal was a first for me.

Learning about how the hotel uses the falcons as a natural deterrent for keeping other animals or pests at bay so hotel and special event guests are not disrupted with unwelcome intruders was fascinating. I now look at the owls that hoot at my house in a whole new light.

Master Sous Vide Cooking with Gerald Sombright
Chef Sombright took the mystery out of this cooking method and shared frank insights on when and when not to use the sous vide method (a cooking method that uses precise temperature control to cook with consistency and precision, which is utilized in many commercial kitchens and adapted for the gourmet home cook who strives to create restaurant-quality dishes in the comfort of their home), including how to keep food in its best state until ready to serve.

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