By Rollie Hochstein
My last mother-daughter spa escapade took place decades ago at a
funky spa in southwest California. It was a fairly spartan
establishment and my clearest memory (daughter Kate’s, too) is the mud
bath. We were to seat ourselves in a pile of “therapeutic” mud and
spread it over our naked bodies. This same mud was sat in by every
willing guest at the spa. Kate’s cringe and the look on her face said
“It’s clean,” an attendant assured us. “We replenish it with electrolytes.”
Kate and I were unwilling.
Cut to 2020 and my other daughter, Bess. We are stressed out from
2019 and we need R & R, not physical therapy. After a coast-to-coast
search and daughterly reminders that I am no longer up to hours of
fitness classes or three-mile mountain hikes, we end up heading for
Sunny Isles Beach in Florida and Acqualina, a five-star resort hotel
with a luxury spa. I borrow a beach dress that I gave Kate ten years
ago and I alchemize a pair of slippers into beach shoes. My swimsuits
haven’t been wet since my last vacation over two years ago, but I’ve
got a nice new bathing cap. These days meds take up as much room as
duds, but I squeeze in last summer’s sun-wear and I’m ready to fly.
Bess shows up, sprightly as usual, and hustles me—walker and all—into
the hired car to JFK.
Wheelchair is my preferred transportation in big airports like
New York’s and Miami’s. Not only do I sit in comfort but I also carry
on my lap my companion’s carry-on along with my handbag, the pile of
periodicals I intend to read on the plane, and—in this case– the bag
of vegan snacks Bess has packed for us. Also we take express routes to
our gate and are boarded ahead of the ambulatory passengers. I can
locomote, so I get to push my walker down the airway and leave it to
be checked at the door of the plane. Easy travel. The same at the
Our hotel was a splurge. We unpacked on the 21st floor in a room
big enough to house a dozen walkers and a couple of pool tables.
Classy neutral colors and the traditional furniture including clubby
wing chair and full-length cushioned couch brought Downton Abbey to
my mind. The king-size bed was swathed in silky sheets and downy
pillows. The bathroom was a showplace with a marble floor, double
vanity, a wide and deep-enough porcelain bathtub with a tub-table full
of bath-enhancers including a rubber ducky. And—oh yes—a stately stall
shower with your choice of an overhead or hand-held washing experience
or both simultaneously. The walk-in closet, for once, had enough
hangers and ample shelf space. The wall-mounted TV was huge and it
worked. The overbed lamps made night reading easy. (A Bedside Reading
Program provides three books—fiction, non-fiction, business— to read
and take home, if so desired. Titles are changed every month).
Note #1. Bess and I were carrying chargers for our mobile phones
and my hearing aids. We plugged them into outlets near the floor and
left them dangling. Next day, after a walk in the sun, we returned to
find the room find the room in mint condition with the charger cords
neatly and safely coiled. Good housekeeping.
That was just the inside. Outside the room was the ocean. The window wall opened on a deck that opened on an unobstructed view of endless sea, shimmering in the sunlight, shivering under clouds, seething with oncoming tides. (Technically, it was the Atlantic Ocean). One minute of standing on the terrace, once I got over the vertigo, was like twenty minutes of mantra-induced meditation. Up there it was truly Cielo e Mare (sky and sea for readers who are not up on Italian opera–“La Gioconda,” that is).
Note #2. The plushy wall-to-wall curtains not only reached but
embraced both walls. And they overlapped in the middle, providing true
darkness for all hours of late rising.
It’s tempting to stay put in such a room, but who could resist the call of the expansive beach, the restaurants and the spa? Not to mention the exotic enclave of “little Odessa” across the street, the fabled Aventura Mall just a gemstone’s-throw away, and Bal Harbour not far down Collins Avenue. Blooming Miami with its exciting Wynwood arts district and the South Beach is an easy drive if you can beat the traffic.
My daughter picked the place. I was paying. To offset the high cost of living high, Bess brought bags and boxes of vegan edibles: beet chips, sweet potato chips, dried apricots and dried persimmons, and many varieties of nuts and grainy crackers. We made good use of the elaborate in-room espresso maker and stocked the mini-fridge with orange juice and almond milk from the nearby Publix—and Bess bought half a dozen corn muffins just for me.
Bess is vegan. I–while I recognize the merits of healthful, conscionable eating–am omnivorous. After two days I got up early enough to go downstairs for a real breakfast. A sumptuous buffet ($39) is set up at the AQ Restaurant with indoor and outdoor tables looking at the beach. I parked my walker at the counter where mouth-watering croissants, muffins and pastries are for sale until 11 a.m. the restaurant’s closing time. I asked if I could order a la carte: “Just an omelet.” ($22). The headwaiter looked a bit uncertain but he accommodated me, helpful and friendly as were 100% of the people who work at the hotel. We negotiated fillings. I asked for cheese. Swiss
“A little spinach?”
“Sure,” I said nonchalantly, risking an extra charge. I also
agreed to have toast.
“Just tap water, thank you.”
Rather than take up a grandly set table, I settled onto a banquette near the gelato bar and the waiter ceremoniously spread asetting on the coffee table at my knees. I ate like a queen.
The three-egg omelet was sumptuous and tasty, with a crisp little salad on the side. Even the toast was noteworthy, served with three jellies and honey and excellent butter. Enough for lunch, I remarked to myself, and when I saw the check ($25, tip included) I decided to add a little more.
The restaurants at this hotel are, as the foodies say, worth a trip. For a superb lunch or dinner, the formal Il Mulino is right up there with its counterpart in New York. A sophisticated chef with reliable taste buds works from a classical grounding and delivers an inventive updated menu. Everything looks good and tastes great in an indoor-outdoor setting with fastidious but congenial service. (This hotel could write the book on hiring and training.)
Lunch on the beach, for guests only, is served at the Costa Grill. Compared to my usual poolside fishburger and pina colada bar it’s something like Windsor Palace and the caretaker’s hut. In the first place, beach sand doesn’t blow on your food. Some process of tamping down seems to keep this broad swath of sand tightly underfoot. In the second place there is grass between the sand and the pool areas where the Costa Grill is stationed, with tables under umbrellas (if wanted). The large and varied menu is exciting and inviting with the fine hotel kitchen to fulfill the promise.
Note #3. How do I know about these restaurants? Dear cousins drove down from their winter home near Boca Raton and took us to lunch at Il Mulino. Bess and I had another great lunch at the Costa Grill.
This place has three swimming pools They’re right out back but going there is like a stage change from Act One to Act Two. You exit the cool cosmopolitan hotel and look from under romantic stone archways into a lush landscape reminiscent of a Mediterranean villa’s. You walk a few enchanted steps and descend a palatial stone stairway to the beach and three swimming pools (family, adults only, and serious—with lap lanes, lessons, and swimming classes).
My walker doesn’t do stairs and, since the designated elevator
was out of order, I relied on the help of beach attendants. The walker
was carried down and I made it on my own two feet with the help of a
broad stone banister and the strong arm of an attendant who
complimented my agility. I’d thought the beach would be hard going,
but the pool area was paved and the grassy part was firm. I may have
been dealing with some orthopedic problems but I never felt disabled.
Much of our R&R occurred on the borderline between sod and sand in red-cushioned chairs and a lie-down couch with a tile-topped table big enough for all our gear. Good-looking beach attendants stayed out of sight but were always there to bring more towels or adjust an umbrella. Bess treated me to a coconut drink—vegan, by nature–which was something special. A topless coconut arrived, husked, shaved, and buffed to become a giant mug. Stuck through the top was a skewer with fresh slices of orange, pineapple and
strawberry, along with two straws to access the mugful of cold, delicious coconut milk. When we’d slurped it all up, a waiter took the coconut brought it back cracked open so we could spoon out the sweet and tender coconut meat and savor it.
Rivaling the beach was the Spa, a magic mountain for erasing tension and curing what ails you. Bess and I decided on two treatments apiece. We had massages (as Bess wisely advised) for relaxation at the start of our five-day stay and facials for beautification at the end. I place my massage in the top tier of a long life of such pampering therapy. This one was categorized as the Inner Calm Massage but it was actually custom-made for an aging woman who likes a strong hand but gets black-and-blue at a minor bump. The knowledgeable, chic masseuse wasn’t just following the book. She had her heart in her practice. We talked first, then she went to work knowing what to do.
“Is this too hard?”
“No. It’s borderline. Just right.”
I left her auspices unblemished, my knots loosened into nirvana.
“Ask for Lakita,” I told Bess when we met in the Relaxation Room.
The Radiance Facial—we booked the same basic facial for our
penultimate day–was also first rate and “customized” to accommodate
the difference between an outdoor redhead and an indoor grayhead a
generation apart. In the pleasurable treatment room—masterly Mallory
presided over a trayful of jars and bottles of lotions with high
“I’ve got some little capillaries that show up on my face when it
gets too hot.”
Considering this, Mallory used very light steam on my skin. The
room was darkened. The aroma was agreeable. She moved, like the fog,
“on little cat feet.” I might have fallen asleep but my skin woke up.
Bess, her face, and her eyes had a glow like mine when she emerged
from Mallory’s final touches—a rousing scalp massage that left us both
This Spa was a vacation in itself: spacious and designed with cool
colors and soft lighting, beautiful art objects and my comfort in the
planning. The facilities are, of course, top drawer—roomy locker areas
with everything a woman needs from robes and slippers to razors and
toothbrushes and an array of body-care products from ESPA, an esteemed
Brit establishment that manages the Spa and trains its staff. I
partook of the dry-heat sauna, the wet-heat steam room, and a
labyrinthian shower that came at me from all angles. I spent a lot of
time in the women’s relaxation room, viewing the ocean from a dreamy
reclining chair. The blanket was a faux chinchilla throw. The Himalyan
salt wall behind me was meant to add to my wellbeing, but I was even
happier with the cookies and cucumber water.
Bess and I fit in some time on the co-ed spa terrace, where she enticed me into the heated swimming pool with steps and a railing that made it easy for me. The hot tub was harder but I did it—with some strong assistance from Bess. Drying off on lounge chairs, we mapped out dinner plans (there is no shortage of good, affordable restaurants nearby) and a trip to the local Costco to get my new hearing aids adjusted. Bess ordered a spa Bento Box for lunch.
So passed our lazy, luxurious funkless getaway, with no time for paddleboarding or scuba diving or any of the hotel’s scheduled activities, such as lawn soccer. We slowed down on the lobby level to browse and admire the art and furnishings. I was partial to the topiary, the lovely pottery on lovely shelves and tables, the contemporary art on the walls of the bar and lounge–Damien Hirst,Robert Longo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol. The Italianate lobby offered courtly chairs from which we could watch the comings and goings of fellow guests. Happy couples. Happy families. Happy women loaded down with shopping bags from Gucci and Prado and Louis Vuitton. (Acqualina offers a Girls Getaway package).
Our night life was limited to excursions to neighborhood restaurants. We would leave the lobby flanked by doormen at regal double doors and we would walk, I, clutching my walker down the sloping porte-cochere past a parking lot full of Bentleys and Range Rovers. We would cross Collins Avenue and its beachside line-up of skyscraper hotels and condos. Turn left for a bit and we’d hit Timo, a fine Mediterranean dining room where Bess could find plenty of vegan dishes and I could run rampant through the omnivore choices. Turn right for a block and a half and we approached a strip mall with a plenitude of exotic eateries, including the busy, noisy Café Mozart whose huge Kosher menu offered something for every ethnic or ethical diner.
We never got to look at a three-bedroom suite, with indoor-outdoor footage bigger than my city apartment. Nor did we rent a poolside cabana for $250 a day. We had no time for the spacious and well-equipped fitness center where you can watch the ocean from your treadmill or ellipse workout. There was so much to see and do while we were so busy taking it easy in deluxe style. Oh, well. I heard that Acqualina enjoys a 50% return rate (far more than the average hotel’s re-guesting). Maybe some day I’ll get another urge to splurge.
All photos are courtesy of Acqualina Hotel and Spa
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