Luxury Orlando at the Alfond Inn
If you were to converge all the things in life that I love: art, architectural preservation, design, museums, and beautiful sunny weather, I would proclaim it paradise. I found my Garden of Eden at the Alfond Inn in Winter Park, Florida.
This isn’t the Orlando that you thought you knew if Disney World has been your only vacation destination. About 30 minutes north of the theme parks is Winter Park, a community plotted in the late 19th century, and its Gilded Age founders envisioned a winter respite with strict architectural standards. Rollins College, Florida’s first college founded in 1885, has long been at the heart of the Winter Park community.
The Alfond Inn, a Museum and Hotel
The Alfond Inn is a most unique property. Operated by Rollins College, all of its profits fund scholarships for Rollins students. In addition, Rollins College has been incredibly lucky to receive the patronage from a Boston-area couple, Barbara and Ted Alfond, who met while students at Rollins College. The Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College rotates pieces from The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art on the walls of the Alfond Inn, an annex of the museum on the nearby campus.
Check into this Preferred Hotel where public spaces resemble a spread in Elle Décor, and walk to Winter Park’s most engaging museums, shopping, and restaurants and accept it. This is not the Orlando you know; you’ve been missing out.
The Alfond Inn Guest Amenities
Unlike so many of the hotels surrounding the theme parks, the Alfond Inn family amenities aren’t of the obvious kind. Rooms include spacious sitting areas with pullout sofas, and the sleeping areas are configured with two queens or a king bed adorned with peacock pillows, the symbol of Winter Park. There aren’t many suites, and a bride will likely take the presidential suite on the weekends.
We actually had a fire alarm evacuation in the middle of the night during our stay. It was a calm and uneventful experience, but I still grabbed my camera.
I focused on two brides carrying their dresses outside to the front of the hotel’s circle drive in their pajamas and pressed the shutter button. I was disappointed to discover that my camera battery was still charging in the hotel room.
The rooftop pool feels elegant and adult, though your children won’t care. There’s a fitness center onsite but no spa. There are day spas and salons near the hotel the concierge can arrange appointments for you.
Dining at the Alfond Inn
The guest experience at the Alfond Inn really focuses on food and art.
On our first morning, I ordered room service, and I was delighted to see how much higher the standards for food had risen in those 30 minutes from the theme parks. Our blueberry pancakes and vegetable omelets were as delicious as they looked. There are limited children’s menu items at the Alfond Inn, but I’ve been told they will be expanding them.
Hamilton’s Kitchen is the only restaurant onsite and offers outdoor seating and a lively lounge. There are many special events like weekly jazz concerts held here that are popular with Winter Park locals.
Art at The Alfond Inn
The collection of the hotel is worth as many hours during your stay as you can squeeze in. Fortunately, this museum won’t close during your visit.
Pieces displayed from the Cornell Fine Arts Museum offer a broad range of contemporary artists whose collections also hang in the Guggenheim, the Tate Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Centre Pompidou—just to name a few.
Barbara and Ted Alfond’s collection skews so contemporary that it took a while to adjust to the fact that many of the artists were born in the late 1970s, even the 80s. It was my first time to feel old while looking at art on gallery walls.
When expounding on what motivated her as a collector, Barbara Alfond offered, “Because all art serves to explain and express the complexities of its particular here and now and because — quite frankly — we can use all the help we can get.” So true.
The hotel provides three ways to enjoy the collection. First there are books you can purchase describing the collection in detail. Second, there are audio tours available at the front desk on iPods that may engage your older children, and third, an interactive touchscreen in the lobby area describes the collection both by location in the hotel and by artist. Had we stayed longer, I would have definitely organized a family art scavenger hunt in the hotel.
Key paintings from the collection are found on the walls of the hotel’s public spaces on the first floor. The guest floors’ elevator lobbies typically showcase photographic works. Travelers will be impressed to know the legendary Steve McCurry portrait of the Afghan girl made famous by National Geographic is here.
There are installations of objects like a 1960s Pan Am shoulder bag by Haim Steinbach, known for creating display cases of mass-produced objects to enable them to take on new meaning. This may give you pause to make sure that the daily plate of chocolate chip cookies nearby is, indeed, for the guests to eat and not another work of art.
We had the good fortune to have Amy Galpin, the curator of the Cornell Museum and art history professor at Rollins, show us some of her favorite pieces of the collection and provide fascinating biography of many if its artists. The New York Times recently profiled many trending Twentieth Century women artists who were underappreciated and who are now given the attention they deserve. The Alfond’s collection includes many of them, including Rosalyn Drexler and Carmen Herrera. The article is a must read before you check into the hotel.
Even if you have little interest in looking at art, be sure to examine the work behind the hostess station at Hamilton’s Kitchen. The Alfonds commissioned this piece by Sabrina Gschwandtner. It is a quilt made entirely from archival 16mm film from The Fashion Institute of Technology. When looking closely on the backlit display, one can see the infinite tiny images of the film that will fascinate children. Then you will likely spend the next several minutes answering the question: “Mom, what is film?”
Another work in the hotel to engage its younger guests is the Brian Burkhardt mushroom plug tray outside the elevator on the fifth floor. Burkhardt is an artist and fashion and jewelry designer who lives in Miami whose younger years were spent on an organic farm. Ask your children to search for secrets hidden objects on the mushrooms to get them really concentrated on a piece.
Winter Park at your doorstep
Winter Park’s Park Avenue is two blocks away from the hotel and offers ample shopping, spas, more museums, and food, food, food that Luxe Recess will profile soon.
A chocolate shop on the corner offered chocolate painting classes on a night we were there, and my daughter and I enjoyed some alone time with local mothers and daughters.
Every participant was given a chocolate frame to decorate. Amusingly the staff member procured protected sheets of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century masters. “Sure,” I thought. “I’d be delighted to replicate Starry Night using three colors of edible paint in less than thirty minutes.” Clearly previous attendees had set the bar higher than my capabilities.
The Scenic Boat Tour of Winter Park
Interestingly, the Scenic Boat Tour of Winter Park is the longest running attraction in the state of Florida. A few blocks from the hotel one can explore the interconnecting lakes of Winter Park to enjoy the back yards of its most impressive homes, with examples of architectural styles ranging from the early Twentieth Century to the modern McMansion.
This was a fantastic day for our three generations vacationing together. My youngest fell asleep instantly from the gentle vibrations of the boat, and the rest of us were engaged by every word from our knowledgeable tour guide.
Rollins College, the Kraft Azalea Garden, and the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens are some of the area attractions one can see from the boats, as well as the former winter residence of Fred Rogers. It was a truly beautiful day in his neighborhood.
Winter Park and the Alfond Inn offer a side of Orlando that I can’t get enough of: intimate museums with ambitious collections, farm-to-table restaurants, a community dedicated to historic preservation. Never again can we make the trek to the theme parks without adding a few days in which to savor Winter Park’s delights.
Although we were guests of the Alfond Inn, these opinions are entirely my own.