A Xanadu among trailer parks: Florida's Boca Raton Hotel

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Forget everything about past Florida vacations: the cramped car smelling of oranges, billboards prophesying ''World Famous Pecan Rolls Next Exit,'' and of course the entire college-age population jockeying for that few feet of sand next to yours.

Yes, forget all this and think only of private courtyards, burbling fountains , and enough shimmering ceiling fans to give ''Casablanca'' a run for its money.

This is the Boca Raton Hotel and Club, one of the oldest grand hotels in America. And it is indeed a Xanadu among the trailer parks - a pink stucco pleasure palace left over from the jazz age and gussied up with some windsurfers and a five-star rating.

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Built in the heyday of the Roaring '20s, the hotel has served as a vacation retreat for moguls and movie stars for nearly 60 years. When Addison Mizner, the original architect and owner, threw open the doors of his hotel, the Cloister Inn, in 1926, it was the most expensive - $1.25 million - 100-room hotel ever built. One writer was so impressed by the cypress beams, tile floors, and Spanish antiques that he described the opulent inn as ''a happy combination of Venice and heaven, Florence and Toledo, with a little Greco-Roman glory and grandeur thrown in.''

It was a majestic if slightly mishmash combination of architectural styles that was designed to sweep visitors right off their feet. It still does.

Today, after six successive owners, including the Ritz-Carlton, the hotel reigns as a hostelry jewel in Florida's glittery Gold Coast, that well-heeled strip of beachfront property stretching from the glitz of Miami Beach to the ritz of Palm Beach that is all the rage come January.

Refurbished, renovated, and expanded, the hotel is a year-round resort estate that caters to more than Wall Street magnates and film stars. Annually, some 80, 000 guests come to bask and frolic on its 17,500 palm-studded acres. Admittedly they don't come here for solitude and exotica - Boca Raton is definitely not a deserted island retreat. People come here to play and be pampered. And they are prepared to pay for it. The resort boasts nearly 1,200 rooms and suites on four different properties, 8 restaurants, an 18-hole golf course, 22 clay tennis courts, four freshwater pools, a marina, and flotilla of ocean sports equipment.

There is also a staff-to-guest ratio of roughly 1 to 1, which gives you some idea of the small armies of white-jacketed bellmen, maids, and waiters that swoop around the place unobtrusively. Staying at the Boca Raton Hotel and Club is a little like taking a landbound cruise - an exercise in remembering to use one's salad fork while dining poolside. It's as much an opportunity to polish your waterskiing skills as your Emily Post etiquette.

But what could be a stuffy and possibly off-putting hotel - one doesn't earn five-star ratings for nothing - has gracefully entered the 20th century with its Old World elegance tempered by Florida-style friendliness. Unlike Palm Beach's equally swanky hotel, The Breakers, which is generally considered the nearest hostelry competition, the Boca Raton Hotel caters less to the staid ''old-money crowd,'' and more to the nouveau riche folk, according to observers. Not only does the hotel now host many business conferences and meetings each year, but several thousand local residents have taken out local club memberships. In addition, the hotel offers good off-season (summer) packages - about half price in some cases. All of which makes the hotel a bit more accessible to hoi polloi.

In fact, one of the chief assets of the hotel is its willingness to cater to all types of fun-in-the-sun seekers - from those who feel underdressed without their pearls and sports jackets to those who refuse to get out of their maillots.

The resort's ability to accommodate such a diverse crowd stems from its disparate nature - four hotels on two separate properties - the Cloister, the Tower, Golf Villas, and the Beach Club. Each has its own advantages and price range and appeals to very different ways of vacationing. And it is wise to know which is which before making your reservation. It is particularly important to realize that the Beach Club and the beach itself are down the road a piece from the rest of the hotel property. You will need to take the complimentary shuttle bus or boat to and fro - a journey that is insignificant at first jaunt but does tend to restrict one's activities after a few days.

No matter where you choose to stay, you will approach the hotel - looming among the palms like a giant pink panorama egg - via the Camino Real. It is an old-fashioned, palm-flanked drive that will set your feet to tapping ''We're in the Money.'' And you better be. The look may be Roaring '20s but the prices are strictly 1983.

Whether you're a purist whose taste runs to nonstop golf or tennis or you prefer shopping for Wedgwood china before a late lunch on the patio, you'll probably want to stay in the original Cloister. Rife with swirling overhead fans , potted palms, and antique sea-captains' chests, the lobby is the epitome of yesteryear elegance. It's a pity that the 600 rooms here have a lot less charm. They are comfortable, quiet, and unspectacular, unless you get one on the second floor with a balcony overlooking the garden. There is no extra charge for this location and you will be awakened every day by the buzz of cicadas in the Monkey Puzzle trees and the babble of the courtyard fountain. Since the hotel will reserve a particular room, it's worth requesting a terrace.

As the Cloister is actually the main body of the resort, four of the seven restaurants, as well as the golf course and tennis courts, are all within or directly adjacent to it. Judging from the look of the guests in the lobby, this part of the resort appeals to the more dressy, social crowd who appreciate Old World ambiance but also want to be within hailing distance of the pro shop.

Right next door to the Cloister is the Tower, a 28-story high-rise overlooking the inland waterway. It may seem an incongruous building for a resort hotel, but it blends right in with Boca Raton, a town not shy about its looming condominiums. The suites in the Tower were closed for smoke- and fire-alarm installation this past summer, but they are rumored to be large with spectacular views. They are also more expensive than those in the Cloister. Because the Tower is nearest the convention hall, this part of the resort appeals to the business visitors as well those vacationers who think luxury living means high-rise living.

The third room option, and the last on this part of the hotel grounds, is the Golf Villas, low-slung pink-stucco abodes squirreled away on the back nine. Desire for privacy and a dedication to an early morning foursome seem requisite for staying in one of the 100 rooms or suites here. Room service is available and there is a pool, but everything else is a shuttle bus ride away. The rooms, while updated, still resemble more a standard hotel room and do not really seem up to five-star standards. But the suites do come with kitchens, making it feasible for families or those interested in extended non-meal plan visits to do so rather reasonably.

But for this traveler, a dyed-in-the-pool water freak who can occasionally be coaxed onto the tennis court and even less frequently persuaded to enter a golf cart, the Beach Club is the place to be.

Comprising more than 200 rooms, two restaurants, two pools, shops, and a series of cabanas, the Beach Club is the newest and most noticeably lavish part of the resort. It has a big circular drive, splashing fountain, and an escalator to the lobby where the management will ply you with a fluted glass of fresh orange juice as you check in. That's simply the beginning.

Only three years old, the club has amenities few of us have ever thought to look for. Tile floors and Oriental rugs grace the hallways, and there are huge bowls of fresh gladioluses on every floor. In the afternoons a pianist tickles the ivories, albeit tastefully, in one corner of the lobby. And there is a nice row of comfortable chairs under some small palm trees where you can sit and enjoy the music and a view of the ocean. This is an elegant but not ostentatious hotel.

As for the Beach Club guest rooms, they are definitely a cut above the rest - in price as well as comfort. But the view of the ocean - most of the rooms face the sea - is worth every dollar. If you've come this far to see some tropical water you might as well enjoy it from your own balcony. The rooms themselves are done in muted pastels and are comfortable, spacious, and bright with large beds, high-backed wicker chairs, and floor-to-ceiling windows.

The rooms also come with some unique amenities - terry-cloth robes, bath accessories, and a nice little refrigerator stocked daily with fruit juices and imported chocolates. Every morning there is a complimentary newspaper lying outside your oak door. And every afternoon somebody in a white jacket will bring a bucket of fresh ice, just about the time when even the most intrepid beachgoer will crawl in out of the sun and sprawl across his king-size bed.

It is a good idea to rest up for dinner. The breakfast buffets are lavish and more than enough to get you through to late afternoon. And dinner is a hefty, if not gourmet, five-course affair. You will not starve on the hotel's modified American plan. As for the five-star restaurants - one in the Tower and one in the Beach Club - eat in them only at your own peril. They are not covered by the American plan - you will get a per-person $10 credit toward a meal - but the food is outstanding and will completely spoil you for a return to culinary normalcy.

To get the most use out of your room, order up room service breakfast - only an extra $2 charge if you're on the meal plan - and have your fresh strawberries and silver-dollar pancakes overlooking the sun-drenched sea.

Then, if you can tear yourself away, wander out to the beach or to one of the two pools.

Thirsty? Simply run up the flag and some cheerful employee will trot across the hot sands and bring you something cool to drink. This is an easy way to while away the day, but it's not a bad idea to exert yourself and take in some snorkling or sailing to break up the time.

Basics:

The best time to visit the Boca Raton Hotel and Club depends entirely upon your pocketbook. Obviously midwinter is preferable for frost-belt visitors, but be prepared for high prices and book early.

Rooms in the Cloister are $220 for a double room. Beach Club rooms on the ocean are $295. But this price also includes two meals per person per day.

Fall and spring rates run about $50 to $80 less than high season tariffs. And summer packages are 50 to 70 percent less. A double oceanfront Beach Club room can go for as little as $125 during steamy, sticky June, July, and August.

The hotel is in the heart of the Gold Coast, with easy access from Interstate 95 for those approaching by car. Three airports - Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami - are all convenient and can provide car rental as well as limousine and bus service to the hotel. Telephone for the hotel is (305) 395-3000, or 800 -327-0101, excluding Wisconsin and Florida. (For more about Boca Raton, see GOLD COAST, page 15.)

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