Ritz-Carlton's New Cabanas Push Fort Lauderdale Luxe To A New Level (Literally)

A couple of nights ago I got to join a group for a little soirée like quite a few I've attended in some of the glammer circles of South Beach. The venue was a line of ten sleek white cabanas facing the ocean, stocked with bubbly, shrimp and crab legs, decadent desserts, and lots of Ketel One. A DJ spun global lounge sounds, and between sips, noshes, and gazes out at the busy beach and the ships in the distance we all happily dished about the latest doings in South Florida and beyond.

Except this wasn't SoBe, but Fort Lauderdale's once dowdy beachfront. Even years after the transformation, I have to admit I'm still not quite used to it. When I first started coming to Lauderdale in the mid-90s, there was a certain yachty upper crust here, but much of that action was away from the beach, on the Intracoastal Waterway. Atlantic Boulevard was lined either with moldering motels and other establishments that had definitely seen better days, or rowdy, chug-a-lug spring break joints.

Now the beachfront skyline includes fancy resorts like the Atlantic, the W, and the Ritz-Carlton, which the chain converted from a St. Regis in 2008. Well, sort of converted -- they changed the name, but almost everything else stayed the same. Until now -- just last month, director of operations Mary O' Donnell dreamed up R-C's first signature stamp on the property, consisting of taking a long, narrow existing patio below the pool area and doing an extreme makeover on its nondescript cabanas, turning them into -- for want of a better word -- tented mini fantasies.

All of them share a few basics, like iPod sound system, a flatscreen TV, fridge, and attendant service. But on top of that, several packages throw in varying degrees of frills. There's the "Sultry Affair" ($500 for two hours), with a round, rose-petal-strewn bed, Veuve Clicquot for two, and a spread of savory and sweet goodies (including oysters, and you know what they say about oysters); the "Bachelorette Finale" (a cool grand for two hours) with booze and noshes for six; the "Royal Treatment" for couples (a grand for the whole day), including a spread plus a massage; and the biggest extravaganza, the "Private Moonlight Lounge" ($5,000 for two hours), including all ten cabanas and open bar and grub for 50. If all the above is making your head spin, you can always opt for the basic package for two, which runs $250 for the whole day but on the grazing front is pretty much limited to bottled water and fresh fruit.

Whew, that's a relief...

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