With real estate, it’s location, location, location.
With travel destinations, it’s experience, experience, experience, especially ones not likely duplicated in your hometown. On a recent press trip to North Florida, I expected to see sand, sun and surf. What I got instead were experiences in unique venues that amped the good-times value meter.
Shanks for the Memories, Bob Hope
I don’t golf. I’ve had a few lessons, have wiggled my hips in my cute golf skirt trying to place my feet properly, and in my college days, flirted famously with the young pro so I could get a better physical education grade. And though I do know the stellar reputations or tidbits of salacious gossip about celebrity golfers, the game has never held my attention. So why was I standing in the Shanks for the Memories room of the World Golf Hall of Fame (WGHOF) in St. Augustine, riveted in place by a flood of memories?
Surrounding me were images of Bob Hope, a man whose movies I have watched repeatedly throughout my life and who I thought heroic for his USO tours to war-weary soldiers in harsh terrains. Here were photos and films of the ski-nosed comedian with American Presidents, accepting acting awards, and entertaining the troops. What was just as apparent is the memorabilia of him toting a golf club as if it were a third arm. The WGHOF Hope collection was just increased. “His family gave all rights to us (WGHOF) to be the keeper of all things Hope,” says Travis Hill, Director of Communications.
I was also mesmerized by the Locker Room, where each of the 146 inducted champions has a personalized locker that stands ajar for guests to peruse. The Locker Room is usually one of the final rooms for groups of up to 2,000 to see when guided by volunteer docents or when doing a scavenger hunt.
The 35,000 sf museum has 13 rental facilities. The newest venue, Legacy, A Tribute to African—Americans in Golf, opened May 2. While Shanks for the Memories or Legacy, A Tribute to African-Americans in Golf are perfect for cocktail receptions, larger groups have the option of playing team challenges on two indoor putting courses, hoisting a golf club for photo ops on the replica of the iconic Swilcan Burn Bridge, built in 1834 on the St. Andrews Links Course in Scotland, or dining in the Shell Hall Banquet facility. Catering for Shell Hall and other corporate events is mostly done by the next-door Renaissance World Golf Village Resort, but on our trip, we sat in the Trophy Tower overlooking the entire Village and had excellent food dished up by the adjacent Fairways Café.
Groups and individuals alike can extend the day’s events at the onsite IMAX Theater, the largest in the Southeast U.S with 299 seats. Our group watched a documentary about the invasion of Normandy. There wasn’t a dry eye among us.
Ponte Vedra Beach Drives Professional Golf
As long as we’re talking golf, have you ever been awed by a Clubhouse? Neither had I until we toured the 77,000 sf TPC Clubhouse at Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, home to the PGA World Tour Academy Headquarters and two of just 32 TPC Courses in the country. Set within the lush boundaries of a natural preserve in Ponte Vedra Beach, the Clubhouse is the epitome of where you’d expect celebrity golfers to hang out when they’re not playing the onsite championship Stadium or Dye’s Valley Courses. The tone inside the Club House is reverential. Volunteer Storytellers guide visitors and groups seven days a week from room to room, pointing out art pieces and tour souvenirs posted on walls. “The tour can take anywhere from an hour to an hour-and-a-half,” says Andrea Smith, Director of Group Sales, “but we provide as many as are needed for cocktail hours or dinners. The story tellers are mostly retired executives who are avid golfers. Each tour is customized to the group size and special requests. There’s no charge, but when money is given, all funds are donated by the Storytellers to charitable organizations.”
The Clubhouse resembles a grand hotel, elegant in polished dark woods, subdued colors, and architectural craftsmanship, but there are two rooms rentable to smaller groups for functions during non-tournament play that are the big prize. The Champions Room is a collage of memorabilia about the life and times of the year’s current PGA Champion. Then there’s Pub 17, named after the famed 17th island hole on The Players Stadium Course. During tournaments, only the players and wait staff are allowed into Pub 17. “No families. No friends,” says Kim Jones, Golf Sales Manager.
Of course, there are times when a larger group wants to party in the Clubhouse. The Ponte Vedra ballroom seats 540, can be subdivided and each area has a private terrace overlooking the Stadium Course.
Sawgrass Marriott has 510 guestrooms and 24 suites, which includes 80 private villas. With more than 61,000 sf of meeting space on one level and seven restaurants and bars onsite, as well as a 25,000 sf spa, there are many venues in which to eat, drink, meet and be merry.
Personally, I could have parked myself at the recently-renovated Vernon’s Restaurant and sipped any (or maybe all?) of the daily offerings on their Chowder Bar, but if I had time for only one meal, just leave me at Vines, the wine bar in the middle of the lobby. Take my word for it. Wrap your tongue around their award-winning Lobster Strudel, a delicate filo dough eggroll of chunks of Maine lobster that have been butter poached, mixed with Boursin Cheese, baked and topped with a light lemon truffle sauce. My other fave was Crabcake Porcupine, a spiky concoction of crabmeat stuffed in the middle of shredded filo that is then fried crispy and kissed by a stream of saffron oil sauce.
Yeah, you could be like me and eat your way through the visit, but if you’re a golfer, you probably want to walk along the new $1 million TPC Cart Path, the first-ever connection linking the resort directly to the Players championship headquarters. Then again, maybe you’re hosting a small group of elite players and want to make this a bucket list fulfillment that they’ll forever be dreaming about; getting to live the PGA Tour Experience.
“Each player receives a caddy bib, money clip and name plate, each engraved with their name, just like the tournament pros receive,” says Kym Jones, Golf Sales Manager. The three-line locker plate usually has the player’s name, date of play, and the name of the company engraved. “When the tournament’s over, we bond the plate on a walnut base as a memento. We can easily do that level of VIP service for 20,” says Jones.
Everbank Field Scores Touchdowns in the Party Zones
When asked later about the home of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the first question inevitably was whether I’d seen Everbank Field’s two mammoth scoreboards, supposedly the largest in the world. I did, but that wasn’t the facet of the arena that impressed me most. One of several sports facilities within the downtown core, Everbank received a $135 million renovation in 2014. Seating capacity is 82,000, making it the third largest NFL stadium in the country. That’s all interesting stuff if you’re planning a party for 82,000 of your closest friends, but if your group is smaller than that, then this stadium has eight unique event venues that are stars in their own right.
There’s the Bud Light Party Zone that can hold 800 to 2,500 for private functions. Bright, colorful and cheery. Floor length windows give you an eye-popping view of the South End Zone. There are 55 plasma TVs and a large bar running through the center. I also thought both the East and West Touchdown Clubs perfect for larger groups. Think about 60,000 sf of luxury, three levels of floor-to-ceiling windows, and direct entrances from the parking lot. The West Side faces downtown and the East Touchdown Club gives views to the port. You could create the ultimate fan experience by hosting your executive group or football fanatic friends in the Home Locker Room. I’ve been in locker rooms. Probably wouldn’t be my personal choice for a meal and drinks, but if it’s yours, the space can accommodate 175 for reception or 75 for a seated dinner.
If you’re really looking to impress, the brand new NEZ Clevelander Deck (whole or choose either the East or West Side) is yours for an upcharge that includes spas, roof top bar scene and private cabanas. If your group includes guys willing to display their guns or bikini-clad females splashing in the pool, they may think no price is too steep to pay for the TV cameras panning over them sporadically during the game. And just because the game is over doesn’t mean the party has to stop. Bring on the dancers, band and martinis… the party can rock on til the wee hours of morning.
Punch a Time Card. Belly Up to the Bar. The Next Drink’s on this Distillery. Once upon a time there was an ice plant, the first built in St. Augustine. Then it reincarnated in March, 2014 to the St. Augustine Distillery. By 2017 it will be the first facility in Florida to legally distill bourbon. In the meantime, this is one fun place to take your friends or a corporate group (50 max) for a pre-party before an evening of food, fun and further festivities.
I knew this place was special when a darling young woman dressed as Lucille Ball embracing a Rosie the Riveter persona welcomed us and asked that we clock in with the ancient time clock. Our punched card was actually our ticket for the distillery tour, a one to 1-1/2 hour tour which began with a 10-minute film detailing the history, local farmers who supply the produce, and how this small company began manufacturing the first vodka and gin produced in Florida. We retired to an antiquated saloon-looking bar where we truly bellied up to try a shot of each of the spirits. By the beginning of 2015, they expect to produce silver rum.
Both the vodka and gin had distinctive flavors that set them apart from others I’ve had. We couldn’t resist browsing the gift shop, learning that when you buy booze directly from a distillery, Florida law says you can only buy a total of two bottles each calendar year. I bought some other goodies, but if I tell you and my husband reads this story, he’ll know what he’s getting for his birthday, so…. Let’s just say the shop carries more than booze and tshirts with the distillery’s name imprinted.
Three Centuries of Spanish History Comes Alive in the Colonial Quarter
2015 is a big year for St. Augustine. The nation’s oldest formalized city celebrates its 450th year of discovery by Spanish explorer Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, so it’s no surprise that tourists flock to the city to eye the preserved architecture, ogle the ornate hotels built by Henry Morrison Flagler, or browse the museums testifying to the creative leanings of early settlers and contemporary artistic masters. The surprise lies in the heart of the city, a two+ acre space built in preparation for the 450th celebration and which is now a permanent attraction and amazing event space called Colonial Quarter.
A Flagler lookalike (actor John Stavely) guided us to the space after regaling us with tales of how he built Ponce de Leon Hall in 1888 (now Flagler College and yes, those rooms that once hosted wealthy wintering patrons now houses students), the Alcazar Hotel (now the Lightner Museum) and took over a hotel that today is the Casa Monica boutique hotel.
“The Colonial Quarter represents three centuries of Spanish history (16th through the 18th) and one overlapping 18th century when the British influenced the area,” says Cindy Stavely, Executive Director of Colonial Quarter.
Inside the venue, we watched and listened to a blacksmith hammering away in his shop lit by fading sunlight and candles. He explained how his craft was achieved in those days. We saw a Spanish soldier powder his musket, we climbed a watch tower, and then dined on long wooden tables in front of a lit stage while Spanish guitarist Fermin strummed and a fantastic Spanish dinner was served up by Chef Michael, owner of Michael’s Tasting Room. Chef Michael also runs the two restaurants bordering the property: Taberna de Caballo and the Bull & Crown Publick House. “The restaurants aren’t themed, but are interpretations of those periods,” says Chef Michael, “but we can customize the menu to suit any theme.”
Stavely (married to the actor portraying Henry Flagler) says groups often begin the evening with a cocktail hour in front of the blacksmith’s shop and move through the centuries. There are many other re-enactors possible to make a themed evening complete. We also marveled at the excellent slight-of-hand from magician William Mayhem, also the voice and face of the Pirate Museum, and who frequently is booked for group events.
Guests can be led into dinner by an entourage of hot-stepping conquistadors to the stage and dining area. Then, as happened at our dinner, St. Augustine founder lookalike Chad Light explains how his men conquered the area.
Colonial Quarter can comfortably accommodate 400 for reception and 150 seated for an outside dinner, but themed banquets are not all this venue hosts.
“We’ve had concerts and this holiday time, we’re decorating to coincide with the city’s Nights of Lights festivities,” says Stavely. “Family fun not found elsewhere.”
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.