By Susan & Simon Veness

Everyone knows that Florida offers the ideal family holiday experience; that it features world-class beaches and theme parks; it has a great sense of value; and it boasts a superb service ethic.

But we still hear queries over one aspect of the Sunshine State vacation – is Florida genuinely a true luxury proposition?

The simple answer to that is Yes. The complex answer is E + lx/vfm = 100% (where E = Entertainment, lx = luxury, vfm is value-for-money and 100% is, of course, a resounding Yes).

In some ways it is a relatively new development; but, in others, it has been a part of Florida’s DNA from the day the very first tourist arrived and sent back the obligatory postcard – ‘The weather is lovely – and so is everything else.’

Florida luxury from the start

That’s because the whole basis of the state’s modern development was predicated on the luxury consciousness of 19th century railroad baron Henry Morrison Flagler. Way back in the 1880s, when he was extending his Florida East Coast Railway (FEC), Henry realised it made the perfect winter retreat for all his wealthy tycoon friends, and a vacation legend was born.

Some of the very first FEC hotels built along the glittering Atlantic coastline – from St Augustine to Key West, and including the likes of Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale – were designed purely with that deluxe clientele in mind, and, while that five-star prevalence lost its way slightly through the middle of the 2oth century, it came back loud and clear in the 1980s as Miami discovered an international profile as a happening party city.

casa monica hotel downtown st augustine the luxury side of florida

Five-star hotels, shops and restaurants

Today, Miami boasts a collection of five-star hotels that is the equal of anywhere in the world, with the likes of St Regis rubbing shoulders with other distinguished brands such as Four Seasons, Faena, EDITION, Mandarin Oriental and Setai, as well as high-quality individuals like 1 Hotel South Beach, Acqualina, Villa Casa Casuarina and the historic Fontainbleau, where the likes of Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley congregated in the past and modern celebrities still flock in great numbers.

Not to be left out, the city of Tampa developed its own railway-influenced hierarchy thanks to another Henry, transportation guru Henry B Plant in this instance, while fringe cities such as Naples, Sarasota and St Petersburg all matured with appeal to the well-heeled holidaymaker, thus ensuring the state’s luxury reputation wasn’t concentrated in just a few areas.

Florida, home of celebrities

And, where the hotels led, the other aspects of luxury trimmings followed, notably with high-end shopping, celebrity-chef-owned restaurants, renowned museums and the homes of the rich and famous, including such luminaries as Bill Gates, Jack Nicklaus, Stephen King, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Nick Faldo and Celine Dion. Let no-one suggest Florida does not have its share of the glitterati!

One city was notably absent from this list, though, until relatively recent times. Of course, Orlando didn’t need much in the way of big names to promote itself, with its primary resident being a certain Mr M Mouse, and Walt Disney World commanding a justifiably international profile ever since its opening in 1971.

But The City Beautiful was not especially well known for its deluxe style, until roughly 2003. That was when the Ritz-Carlton at Grande Lakes opened, almost instantly conferring a cachet of exclusivity and, well, ritziness on a destination that had hitherto prospered quite happily in the budget mainstream.

Ritz Carlton Grande Lakes

Orlando boasts deluxe style, too

The Ritz-Carlton has subsequently been followed by the Waldorf Astoria (the first outside New York) and Four Seasons brands, adding to an index of excellence not previously associated with Orlando. Almost simultaneously, we have seen a real upscale touch added to the city’s shopping style at places like Mall at Millenia and Orlando Premium Outlets, as well as the restaurant component, with celebrated chefs such as Todd English, Roy Yamaguchi, Emeril Lagasse, Jose Andres, Masaharu Morimoto, Rick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck all arriving in the past 20 years.

For a place that has always been slightly ridiculed for its ‘theme park food,’ Orlando now boasts a burgeoning foodie profile the equal of anywhere in America, with the creativity and imagination to match, not to mention a booming craft beer scene.

So, the next time anyone asks you if Florida truly is a luxury destination, you know what to tell them…!

Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million copies of their books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.

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