Here’s what you want. An upscale Florida resort with a great spa, good food and some serious meeting space—but in a serene and beautiful natural environment. For you, the Panhandle, the Florida Keys and the islands off the Gulf coast are a throwback to an earlier time in the Sunshine State when sailboats outnumbered sports cars. We also know a little place just west of Fort Lauderdale that might surprise you (see sidebar).
Just west of Tampa, the 253-room Sandpearl Resort opened in Clearwater in 2007 along one of Florida’s whitest, softest and prettiest beaches. We stopped in for lunch and a site at the 4-diamond property, which feels like an upscale residential winter home with furnishings blending modern wicker, colonial and contemporary styles. Due to the low room count and expansive public spaces, there’s a pervasive sense of calm that extends well beyond the spa and beach.
Sandpearl was one of the first hotels in Florida to be awarded LEED Silver cert, so the spa products are expectably all natural and local. Over 50 treatments revolve between touch therapies and water therapies, with lots of citrus and marine algae ingredients, as well as sand and salt scrubs befitting the Gulf Coast locale. The staff is also serious about health and healing.
“Our spa is really based on wellness, not just a totally relaxing experience,” says spa director Linda Dennis. “The focus is on education so we offer a lot of therapeutic treatments to energize and detox your body.”
Dennis says she loves taking groups through “breath empowerment” exercises on the beach, where participants practice ancient exercises like gi-gong and pranayama to improve clarity of mind and achieve “warrior breath” (not the same thing as what you have after eating garlic).
“Practiced breathing pumps oxygen into everywhere, all over your body,” she explains. “It’s a cleansing, it awakens you, but you have to surrender to it. You have to tell yourself, ‘I’m going to feel better about me’ and let everything go, you know, because we bottle it up so much.”
Dennis says this act of letting go is great for teambuilding, but only if coworkers are willing to drop their walls, at least a little. “It’s not easy,” she says, “People are apprehensive at first, but then they’ll say, ‘I need to be empowered,’ and that’s when you start to sense the path toward enlightenment.”
Outside the hotel, Clearwater is a quiet beach town where the pace of life hasn’t changed much since decades ago when shrimping boats outnumbered the tourists. And, if they want, groups have quick access to the big-city treats in Tampa. Total meeting space is 25,000 sf.
HAWKS CAY Midway down the Florida Keys, the well-to-do Hawks Cay Island Resort is a private island resort with more group experiences per bedroom that anywhere else in Florida. When was the last time your group went bonefishing, competed in a sailboat regatta, swam with dolphins, and prepared the mahi-mahi everyone caught for a barbecue dinner on the beach?
They call that last one the Hook & Cook.
Why this resort, comprised of charming Old Florida hotel suites, villas and cottages doesn’t get more attention from groups is beyond us. It might be the drive, about two hours from Miami International. But it wouldn’t be a true tropical milieu with warm waters the color of blue Fruit Loops if it was only a $15 cab ride from a major US airport. You have to get a little removed from civilization to find a place where people own more flip flops than pants. It’s not everywhere you’ll introduce your group to their lobster hunting guide for the afternoon. We could go on.
The 7,000-sf Calm Waters Spa is not a giant spa because there are so many other amenities onsite. But they do have a fun roundup of tropical treatments.
The signature Key Lime Mojito program is a body exfoliation with mojito sugar followed by a Vichy shower with Key Lime-infused shampoo and conditioning, topped off with by a warm moisture wrap. Naturally, there’s also a Piña Colada Exfoliation with a pineapple sugar scrub followed by a body butter wrap. And if you spend a little too much time in the sun, which is easy to do here, the Dilo Daiquiri body wrap uses dilo gel concocted from dilo nuts, virgin coconut oils and passion flower extract.
“We consistently hear from well-traveled, spa savvy guests that this was the best spa they’ve ever visited,” says Nancy Dimaio, spa director. “We’re very unpretentious and comfortable. People are walking into an environment that’s safe, warm and nurturing.” Group space is 25,000 sf indoors.
Editor’s Note: The day we went to press, we heard the resort partnered with SE Outfitters, the film production company for the TV show, Saltwater Experience. Your groups can now use the exact same Quantum rods/reels and Yellowfin boats they use to fish the exact same backcountry fishing spots.
HILTON SANDESTIN The 600-room Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa is poised on Florida’s Panhandle about half way between Pensacola and Panama City. This is a sportsman’s paradise with four golf courses, 15 tennis courts and endless recreation options at sea.
The 12,000-sf Serenity by the Sea Spa offers a huge array of body treatments, massage and facials, including the popular Millennium Men’s package created to service the many golfers and meeting groups here. It combines a 50-min facial, 50-min deep-tissue rubdown and sport pedicure. To help lower costs, spa director Ryan Holt works directly with sales managers to create special spa/meeting combo packages for delegates and spouses.
“We do what we can to bring the spa to them,” says Holt, explaining exhaustive lengths his staff will go to do massages on the beach or more affordable spa breaks in the ballrooms. “It’s been very well received, especially when there are large groups with the economy as it is.”
Holt helped open the Serenity by the Sea in March 2001, and he’s seen it accommodate many large groups. Its setting on the beach, he says, along with the Hilton’s brand cachet, contributes to its staying power in a competitive market.
SOUTH SEAS Just offshore of Fort Myers, South Seas Island Resort is a collection of 465 accommodations spread across a wide variety of suites, condos, villas and cottages wrapping around the shoreline of Captiva Island. Spotless white beaches, impeccably clean grounds and an Old Florida tranquility set the overall tone. While you’re here, you’ll be too rested to want to venture far from the 330-acre tropical playground. The only thing missing up until now has been a spa.
In December, the new Kay Casperton Lifestyle Spa opened with a focus on health, emotional well-being and inner/outer beauty. Traditional single and couples massages can be performed on secluded parts of the beach, and customizable group fitness classes include yoga, Pilates and the popular “Zumba” Latin dance class sensation.
Kay Casperton, a nationally recognized author, teaches that five elements must be in balance for a healthy lifestyle: emotional, spiritual, physical, environmental and social.
“It’s not about how you look in the mirror,” says Casperton. “It’s how you feel when you look in the mirror.”
With a background in movie make-up, Casperton has been a consultant for the beauty industry for more than 25 years. She has created two lines of cosmetics and skincare products, BioEssentials and Inside, which are used in the spa.
“The wellness is about balance,” says Casperton. “We have a beautiful fitness studio surrounded by our salon, skin care and makeup areas. This is a place where you can spend an entire day. We have people who start with a fitness class, then go up for a facial, then read a book, sit on a couch and lounge around the spa. People don’t feel like rushing away.”
Total event space is 31,000 sf.