There’s no doubt that the pandemic has changed just about every aspect of our lives—especially when it comes to travel.
With months of strict lockdowns, selling my home during a pandemic, and a major move out of state—the reward of having a little fun (PPE-protected, of course), getting pampered for the first time in months, and the momentary feeling that life has returned to pre-COVID times started to outweigh the risks. I decided to book a trip to see what luxury travel looked and felt like firsthand.
My husband and I landed on a long weekend at Acqualina Resort & Residences, a luxury resort located in Sunny Isles, Florida (that’s also known as the ‘Florida’s Riviera’ coined by the owner of the resort itself) not far from the ritzy Bal Harbour Shops and just steps to the Atlantic Ocean.
I am not going to lie. At first, I was a little nervous about the coronavirus exposure and transmission risks at a hotel, especially with Florida a designated “hot zone” at the time. But, after reading the resort’s internal procedures to keep guests safe, many of my concerns were assuaged.
“We have crafted a beautiful guest experience for travelers to relax, enjoy and create wonderful memories with their families despite the pandemic,” explains Deborah Yager Fleming, CEO & Partner of Acqualina Resort. “We are welcoming guests back in the safest way possible, and our app and new Guest Experience Managers (GEMs) will continue providing the personalized care and award-winning service we are known for.”
As soon as we pulled in, it was clear that our health and safety was top of mind. There were several checkpoints for non-contact temperature screenings for guests, residents, and staff. Immediately after dropping off our car at the valet, our steering wheel was cleaned and sealed with plastic. Check-in was simple, safe, and socially-distanced with Plexiglass dividers at the front desk.
On the way to our room, our temperatures were checked again at the elevator which are staffed 24-hours a day to make sure no more than two people (all required to be from the same “pod”) are riding inside at the same time. Once we were in our room, thoughtful yet subtle details that said “We care about your safety” were everywhere, like sanitized television remotes sealed in Acqualina red boxes, Acqualina-branded hand sanitizer, face masks (neoprene for the beach, white cloth mask for inside), and alcohol wipes.
Acqualina Resort & Residences was built in 2006 and is one of Florida’s most elite, family-run real estate and hospitality brands, including 98 rooms and suites and 188 private residences (not including the Mansions At Acqualina next door or the Estates At Acqualina currently under construction).
“We are a place that evokes a Mediterranean lifestyle. We’re Florida’s only hotel that is completely open to the sea with no barriers between the building and the shoreline,” Yager Fleming tells me of how she would describe the brand. “There are so many special aspects to what we’ve created beginning with the name. ‘Acqualina’ translates to being on the water’s edge and, therefore, when we designed the facilities, we were very purposeful in making sure there was a water element or water view throughout all of our spaces, be it public space or in the guest rooms.”
Acqualina is elegant without being stuffy—which is an art in itself to execute. The staff is impeccably trained in an old school appreciation for customer service. The resort’s relentless attention to detail comes from founders Jules and Eddie Trump (no relation to the current President) from the top down, who worked the floors of their parents’ retail stores growing up in South Africa and learned the art of recurring customers in the trenches.
“We have a host of team members who are genuinely caring here, and that comes across to those who visit from the moment they set foot on our property,” Yager Fleming tells me. “We have a set of standards that we abide by, but it’s the personalization provided by our team that people remember. It’s not about being a solo pianist at Acqualina. It’s about being part of the orchestra, and that’s where the magic comes in. It’s everyone’s mission to constantly do better at every level.”
Acqualina has an astounding 50% repeat visitor rate for a reason. Once you experience service at this level, not only does it set a new bar for future travel but you inevitability want it again.
Explaining the significance of the repeat visitor ratio Yager Fleming continues, “Typically, in the hotel industry the numbers are between 10% and 20%. Our guests not only return just once a year, but two and three times in the same year. So it’s critical that our guests feel comfortable and safe when staying with us by safeguarding their health and wellbeing at all times. Our commitment is to offer an exclusive ultra-luxury experience that will feature an even heightened level of health, safety and personalized service using technology and customization of offerings.”
To continue offering a customized guest experience during the pandemic the brand launched an app earlier in the year. “We launched Acqualina’s mobile app earlier this year allowing for the continuation of seamless and personalized service. We are always looking to enhance our service offerings and this new app will facilitate and strengthen personal connections with our team members and hotel guests, always ensuring guest expectations are met and exceeded every day,” states Yager Fleming. “Since we reopened on June 15, we are offering an enhanced guest app and even more personalized service. The technology helps users social distance more efficiently.”
After months of living with lockdowns, I also really needed some pampering when I arrived. I was a little nervous to go to the spa, but self-love and a smidge of vanity overrode my anxiety. Furthermore, after seeing the hotel’s infrastructure set in place from temperature checks and learning about their EPA—approved electrostatic cleaning devices that use a combination of detoxification chemicals and electrostatic molecules to sanitize all interior and exterior spaces and surfaces, I knew the spa experience would be held to the same health and cleanliness standards.
Catherine Davalle, Spa Director, Acqualina Spa by ESPA told me, “COVID-19 has challenged all of us and made us rethink the way we do everything within the spa. We have implemented new tools and procedures that both guests and team members have raved about and are now part of our new routines and will stay even when COVID-19 is long gone. A few examples of those are consultation cards presented on an Ipad rather than paper format, doors opening with a hand wave rather than touching the handles, stickers to protect the locks after lockers have been sanitized. All those new procedures and tools are excellent additions to our spa and we look forward to continue them in the future.”
Aqualina’s spa is a branded ESPA Spa, a company this beauty buff was completely unfamiliar with, which piqued my curiosity immediately. On why they chose Espa, Davalle tells me, “We were looking for a genuine partnership with a skin care brand that understands luxury spas and could also provide the necessary training and tools to be successful and become a Forbes Five Star rated spa.”
I loved both the scent of the ESPA products and how my skin felt after having them incorporated into the spa’s Cryo-T-Shock treatment that uses both heat and cold to firm, lift and contour the face and body. Lakita Rudolph was my practitioner and she made the whole experience relaxing—even when my face was being treated with artic cold temperatures.
The next treatment I had was the Luxury Advanced Hand & Foot treatment (a.k.a., an elevated mani/pedi) that was one of the best I have ever had. Liliana Portenko was my hand and foot reviver. She was so gentle yet incredibly diligent and detail oriented when it came to my cuticles that I actually dosed off for a few moments—something that doesn’t usually happen.
My last indulgence was a couple’s massage known as the Royal Spa Suite Experience, which was in a private suite decorated with Fendi throughout. It consisted of an amazing massage followed by half hour to enjoy the suite’s steam bath, which was great since the spa sauna was closed due to COVID. My husband’s therapist was Lakita Rudolph (who gave me my facial) who managed to have him snoring ten minutes in. My massage therapist was Nair Cunha, who intuitively hit all of my trouble spots with the perfect amount of pressure. It was heavenly.
The spa experience was nothing short of amazing. I left feeling better and looking better and I never once worried about my health. Many aspects of the experience stick out. But one of the most amazing things I noticed were the gloves that each therapist wore for all of the treatments we received. I was shocked that you could not feel them at all.
“Our Spa has been extremely fortunate to have their management team come back to work five weeks prior to the spa reopening. This seems like a long time but it was almost like getting ready for a new spa opening,” explains Davalle. “Each procedure, each product, each standard had to be reviewed and analyzed to make sure the re-opening would be the safest for our guests and team members. Of course, the selection of gloves for our therapists was part of this process and required several trials and errors with our therapists involved in the decision process in order to find gloves that are undetectable and do not break during treatments. We are glad that we have had great feedback from our guests.”
Everyone who goes to Acqualina comes away with the same feeling that’s impossible to describe. But from the stellar location steps away from the ocean to the equally impressive service and amazing onsite restaurant options (including private dining on the beach), there is nothing quite like it.
The most important aspect was that we never felt unsafe. I will definitely be one of the 50% who goes back.