Hollywood Glamour at the Westin Diplomat in Hollywood, Florida
According to Madonna, "Everybody comes to Hollywood," but in over a decade of winter snow-birding, I never made the ten-mile trek south from Fort Lauderdale to Hollywood, Florida.
Luckily, a stay at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa fixed all that - and now Hollywood is no longer just that discombobulating hyphenate on the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport sign.
International is probably a good place to begin. the Diplomat is the oldest "new" hotel on that strip of Intracoastal route A1A dotted with megalith hotels. Indeed, the architectural firm of Nichols, Brosch, Sandoval & Associates left a gaping hole in the center of their curved, 39-story double tower that looks like a nice place to park a craft from "Bladerunner,"
but the history of the hotel dates back to the 1950s.
Before it was imploded by 500 pounds of dynamite in the spring of 1998, the Diplomat was a home-away-from-home for the Rat Pack. Supermarket magnate Samuel Friedland put up a 150-room hotel called The Envoy in 1953. The following year he added 370 rooms and renamed it The Diplomat, turning it over to his son and daughter-in-law to manage.
From Rat Pack To Bladerunner
During its 70s heyday, the hotel’s Café Crystal and Tack Room Lounge played host to Frank, Sammy, Liza and Shirley. MacLaine was an old hand, having spent her teenage years hawking refrigerator magnets up and down Miami Beach, but from The Diplomat stage, she tallied a film career comprised of 14 hookers, a geisha and a nun, quipping, "It was easier playing hookers, at least I could lay down."
Not one to lay down himself, Sinatra even popped out of retirement to perform on New Year’s Eve in 1974, pulling in a cool $200,000 for an hour’s work. But as Sinatra faded from prominence, so did The Diplomat. In 1983, the hotel was plagued by a series of fires and shuttered for its crucial winter season.
In 1984, the Diplomat was back, welcoming President Ronald Reagan as well as a New Year’s Eve ushered in by Bob Hope, but the hotel continued to slide into decline and in 1987 was unloaded to a local consortium of labor unions who bailed it out to the tune of $44,000,000.
But things still headed south until the hotel was shuttered and dynamited in 1998 before another name change--the Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa--and a new management company--Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide--ushered this brand new 998-room beachfront resort into the 21st century.
With a little digging, tiny, framed snatches of the Diplomat’s storied history can be found scattered throughout the new, high-tech, Art Deco hotel. Upon entering the soaring, glassed-in atrium, several bellhops do a Marx Brothers’ routine, practically diving over one another to open the door. The first thing that pops into my mind is how many bellhops does it take to open a door at The Diplomat?
But good luck getting away with the term "bellhop." The hotel’s over one thousand employees are known as Ambassadors and each uniform tag lists not only a name, but a passion. As I’m standing in the lobby, starring down a double row of petrified palms framing a water element that stretches the width of the lobby and pulls one toward the Atlantic Ocean like an undertow, I close my eyes and breath deep as the scent of White Tea fills my lungs.
Ambassador Jeffrey Mikus ("My Passion: English Bulldogs"), fresh from a spin class, breaks me out of my reverie, booming, "I’m in charge of fun." Indeed, a business card later reveals him to be the Diplomat’s "Director of Fun," and that’s Jeffrey all over, fun with a capital ’F’, but he begins to win me over when he leans in to whisper that the lobby orchids are rotated daily as we wait for the Fantasy Island collection of journalists to assemble for a tour which he will guide.
Jeffrey shuffles us out onto the hotel’s back deck, a glorious stack-up of multiple mineral pools free of chlorine and hidden hot tubs. On the upper deck, an infinity pool runs straight out from the hotel, its narrow vanishing edge dropping off into the Atlantic, while beneath it, another long pool runs perpendicular. The two are connected by an oculus in the center of the top pool that’s skirted by double waterfalls on the lower pool. Before shoving off, Jeffrey motions to the glass bottom and says, "Some of the things that children do we will not talk about."
Soon, we’re up to our eyeballs in kids as Jeffrey, or "Mr. Jeff" as he’s known to the hotel’s latchkey populace, makes a beeline for the "Kids Club." I can’t quite figure Jeffrey out. To my mind, the words resort and children are antonyms, yet he seems to vacillate between Mary Poppins and Hedda Nussbaum. On the one hand, he breathlessly intones how "the children" up his hip factor, relaying a recent exchange: "Mr. Jeff, we don’t high five anymore. We fist bump," but on the other hand he’s prone to bitchy pronouncements like, "No, no! There will be no sippy cups here."
As Jeffrey details a 10,000-egg Easter hunt, I slip out of the glitter and glue strewn Kids Club and take in the strip of beach that’s protected for the upcoming sea turtle season. I’m ready for the tour to proceed. If you’re bringing children to a five star resort, frankly, that’s your problem. Soon, Jeffery picks up the pace and brings us into the bowels of The Diplomat for a scene that’s straight out of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
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In the hotel’s stainless steel pastry kitchen, Jeffrey turns things over to Executive Pastry Chef and motorcycle enthusiast Henry Martignago, a sturdy cross between Julia Child and the Swedish Chef from "The Muppets," with a tres French accent naturellement. Martignago’s busy season is definitely the holidays, when he and his team sling a 24-foot tall gingerbread house in the lobby next to the grab-n-go coffee shop Common Grounds, where his pastries are also available. He seats us at the long steel table and begins to trot out some of his specialties. I’m partial to the Princess cake: a vanilla slab with raspberries on the bottom. With the champagne Chef and his assistant Stephanie have on hand, it’s just the thing.
While we’re chowing down, Chef calls our attention to the periphery of the room and its high shelves lined with some of his Marzipan figurine handiwork: a chocolate bunny with beret, toga and painter’s palette, skinny Tim Burton Santa Claus and, my personal favorite, a Warhol soup can filled with Tiramisu. Chef asks us if we know what Marzipan is and I vaguely remember Martha Stewart calling it the RuPaul of chocolates, but I’m at least two champers away from volunteering that information.
Soon, we’re in the thick of it and Chef has us decorating our own outsized cookies with Marzipan, fondant and various other nibbles. The phalanx of journalists proves overachievers all and my desert--a ham-handed attempt to write my name, punctuated with jellybeans--winds up dubbed "the special cookie." I am deeply shamed when an Ambassador, who scans my room hopefully for signs of a child, delivers it later that night. "They’re at the Kids Club," I mutter, closing the door as quickly as I can.
If the pastry kitchen is Charlie’s Chocolate Factory, then my room has come to resemble an Augustus Gloop outpost. My retarded cookie joins a half-eaten, nautically-themed chocolate sculpture I half-demolished upon arrival, stuffing the remains in a drawer along with several infused pillow chocolates that are magically replaced whenever I leave the room. It could be the sugar fix, but almost immediately upon check-in, I begin a series of "looks" that I photo-document: luggage rack as shoulder pads, garbage pail cocked jauntily on head, wrapping up in the sheer white curtains for an instant J.Lo.
In truth, I suppose I’m bored in this deluxe, tricked-out room. It’s eco-friendly, but it’s also echo-friendly. I tell myself it’s because Hollywood’s almost equidistant from both of Florida’s gay-epicenters: Miami and Fort Lauderdale, but I think it really comes down to parking. The Diplomat sits on a strip of A1A populated by hotels almost as grand and that means only one thing: no street parking.
Valet at The Diplomat would set a gentleman caller back $25. I won’t say I’m not worth it, but it’s tough finding nibbles. One abortive text reads simply: "PARKING!!!" In fact, the only chocolate starfish in play is the one squirreled away in the drawer.
The $25 throw-down is a tiny complaint, but one that quickly telescopes from the exorbitant, $12.95 daily fee for an internet connection to the ten spot an Ambassador tries to bilk out of me to sit on a reclining chaise on the beach.
Sure, I’ve seen this five-star property deeply discounted online with room rates well under $200, but you quickly bump back up into resort economics if you have to pay for each minute amenity. With no man and no beach chair, there is nothing left to do but eat.
And the Diplomat has eating covered. The first day’s stay was capped with a walk across the sky bridge (think London’s Millennial Bridge meets more "Bladerunner") to Diplomat Landing across A1A for Intracoastal Waterway views and the Asian fusion of AiZiA (all Asian fusion restaurants in South Florida are spelled with the same Cher Horowitz panache).
This restaurant ’come lounge is heavy on what Simon Doonan calls "The dry-ice movement" in haute cuisine. I’m with Mr. Doonan when he says Cher or Celine’s stage fling up with dry ice is one thing, just keep it off my table. Still, it’s hard to quibble with the literal boatloads of sushi brought to table and an ever-replenishing pineapple-ginger Mojito that proved a ready toast for the many party boats strewn with colored lights crisscrossing the Intracoastal Waterway during the meal.
A party boat-sized hangover got some early sucre from the free-flowing Mimosas Executive Chef David Hackett had the good sense to pour as he presided over a private breakfast in his kitchen. Hearty Irish steel-cut oatmeal brûlée was balanced with delicate slices of Pata Negra, an Iberian ham that derives its rich flavor from the pig’s diet of hazelnuts. Meanwhile, Chef Martignago, who neglected to mention the other day that he was Clinton’s pastry chef, pops a rack of blueberry muffins loaded with lemon curd onto the table while Chef Hackett snipes, "Muffins, to me, are just an excuse to eat cake for breakfast."
Under the header "let them eat cake for breakfast," we hop in one of the waiting shuttles that transport guests to and fro the spa component of The Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa, and after a five-minute drive, we’re immersed in an Italianate wonderland with a Kids-Club-be-damned, adults-only pool. There are rapid-fire golf lessons on the Joe Lee-designed 18-hole course and a clay court tennis lesson which I disrupt trying to photograph the hottie on the adjacent court. I believe the results were worth it.
The real spa story comes later when I sneak back onto a shuttle for my late afternoon assignation with a stacked African named Anthony who doesn’t so much massage me as crumble me like a piece of paper and throw me at the wall like the cliché of the tortured writer. No pun, Anthony was hands-down the best resort spa massage I’ve ever experienced, and the fact that his session can be super-sized from 50 to 80 minutes is just icing on the breakfast cake.
Women may have a different experience in this 30,000-square foot, full-service spa, but the branching, male-only locker areas, steam rooms, sauna and whirlpool are certainly an attempt to correct what the spa director explains is the 70/30 female/male ratio. How else to explain the abundance of Sports Illustrated fanned out on the locker room’s coffee table? Or the lack of cruising? Still, none of the 22 treatment rooms were vacant for a go-see when we chatted mid-afternoon, so The Real Housewives of Broward County are clearly running things.
After my massage, I linger around the spa. I’ll admit it, I’m horny. And I go for the sure thing, popping back into the Aura Salon, a 365-days a year hair and nail extravaganza run by the one-man Broward Beauty Bar: Mr. David.
His no-nonsense attitude doesn’t make flirting very easy, but it’s kept his nine-person staff so happy there’s been virtually no turnover since he opened with the property 11-years ago. The same can be said of his customers. "Anything she asks for," Mr. David explains, "she can have it." I’m getting ready to respond with, "Define she," but instead decide it would be prudent to catch the shuttle on the half hour.
As I’m leaving, Mr. David holds up a cutting comb. I pause. "Sometimes with the brides," he says, "we come to them." I point east towards the Diplomat tower. He nods. The room service up-do: that was worth the wait, but I rush back to the shuttle with just enough time to dress for dinner.
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Tonight, we convene at Hollywood Prime, which was enthusiastically reviewed by another Edge correspondent last year. As I enter a double-height, private dining room in the back, I realize this steakhouse is, despite the name, very New York. As I’m the last to arrive, the wine is already flowing. Soon, a Flintstones-sized portion of prime rib is slammed down on the table in front of me.
And as is their custom, once we get a decent buzz going, the staff lets loose with outrageous gossip about the hotel that none of us will remember the next day as we nurse a hangover. Although the hotel is no longer dog-friendly, the staff certainly is and Jeffrey’s passion is not the only one reserved for our four-legged friends.
After the entrees are cleared, the table descends into dog talk and hotel gossip. I have no problem pawning off my leftover prime rib (there’s lots of it) on the woman seated to my right with two Golden Labs that like to swim. Meat gone, I stumble back to my room alone, realizing the real history of The Diplomat will be written by a teetotaler.
The next morning, we gather on the hotel’s back patio for breakfast. There is a run on coffee. We’re trying to assemble for a scheduled trip to the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, the only real expedition off Diplomat grounds over our three day sojourn.
As the group wanders towards the waiting van, I take a detour to check a bag at the front desk. And then I see him. I can’t be sure if it was last night or the night before, but at some point, an Ambassador held court with the story of a hotel "Plat" or Starwood Preferred Guest at the Platinum Level, meaning he or she (or in some cases, he and she: Double Plats), has racked up either 25 stays or 50 nights per calendar year.
This Plat matches his description perfectly: fluffy white robe, bedroom slippers and a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. There’s a towel slung rakishly over his right shoulder. He’s chatting amiably with an Ambassador manning the front desk, but turns to see what I’m doing catty-corner at the luggage counter. I nod. His eyes are sunken. He is terminal. His son checked him in with a quarter of a million dollar advance three months ago at the top of his six month diagnosis. He looks, above all, perfectly content.
I mean to ask about his stay, but I’m wrangling with the Luggage Ambassador, trying to suss out how many days I can leave a checked bag while I tramp about Fort Lauderdale without actually saying as much. When I finish my negotiation, I turn toward the front desk, but Terminal Plat is gone.
I’ve grown kind of attached to him. When my man-crazy whining reached Def-Con 4, Terminal Plat became an easy way to shut me up. "I’m sure you’d be able to have him up for tea," my colleagues joked, but it felt deeper than that to me. I wanted to ask about his stay.
Since I heard his story, I’d been wondering if the Diplomat is enough? Could anyone’s bucket list be sufficiently crossed-off enough so that whiling away the days in a five-star resort is enough? What happens when that old, South Florida saw: God’s waiting room, is no longer a punchline?
Now the front desk Ambassador is looking at me. "Where did he go?" I ask. And he motions towards the cascading fountains. There I see Terminal Plat shuffling along the row of petrified palms.
"It’s lunch," the Front Desk Ambassador clarifies, then turns to another customer who so eager to check out, he’s drumming his fingers on the front desk, quaking the tendrils on a custom-made Dale Chihuly chandelier designed for Hollywood Prime, but placed upside down on the front desk when it over-powered that other room’s brown leathery Zen. Terminal Plat is shuffling slowly and I can easily overtake him on his way out to the patio, maybe even join him for lunch and get the ultimate interview.
As I close the distance, I look over my shoulder. My colleagues are loading onto the van. They’re also slow, burdened down by their luggage. but they’ll be ready to leave soon. I get close enough to hear Terminal Plat is humming a tune--"The Candy Man"--while the sunshine refracts through the glass ceiling and bounces off the brim of his white baseball cap. I decide to let him enjoy his lunch. And I’m sure he does.