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May 7, 2008

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                 Mandarin Oriental Miami

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Cheers from Miami! Last week we left off in New Orleans and this week, we're just a few hundred miles away in South Florida. After an impromptu mini family reunion, I checked into two hotels in Miami: The plush Mandarin Oriental and the JW Marriott. If you want to see what these properties are like, then come along for the ride in The Sunshine State. Plus, this week I'm sharing information on the top travel-related things that have made life easier for road warriors in the past 20 years. If that doesn't interest you, then perhaps Kelly Gray's trip to Wyoming will. And just in case you're playing hardball or you're an armchair traveler, check out David Zuchowski's book review of Signspotting 2.

Before we get started I should mention that after a long hiatus we're bringing back the Jet Captain! Each week, a commercial airline pilot for one of the major carriers will answer a reader question. So if you've ever wondered why ... please send your question to

I was recently asked by a popular women's magazine about the top travel-related things that have made life easier for road warriors in the past 20 years. When I found out that my information got cut from the story, I thought I might as well make good use of my hard work. So here are my thoughts on the subject ... click here.

I often go to Florida to visit my sister and her family in Delray Beach. In fact, this trip was my sixth since January but it was the most special since my whole family was in town. I won't bore you with the details of our family madness but I will tell you about one of the places that we frequented practically every night after each meal: Gelato On The Grove. It's an eclectic café and coffee bar in Pineapple Grove that serves up possibly the best gelato in Florida. The secret? It's homemade with all-natural ingredients (Small $3.25, Large $5.25). If that's not enough to get you to visit, they offer free WiFi! Gelato On The Grove, 269 NE Second Ave. in Delray Beach, Tel: 561-274-6844.

I headed to Miami for the night to make it less hectic to catch my flight the next morning to Central America. (I'll tell you about that destination next week.) Without traffic, Miami is an hour away. When I arrived, I checked into the Mandarin Oriental, which is arguably the best hotel in the city. The hotel is located on the secluded and prestigious Brickell Key. The high-rise has 326 luxurious rooms and all come with a large balcony overlooking either Biscayne Bay or the city skyline.

The incredible service at the Mandarin Oriental Miami begins the moment you pull up when an army of porters attack the incoming cars. They quickly tag the bags and whisk them up to your room before you can even make it upstairs yourself. Check-in doesn't take long at all. After the agent handed me my room key "Asian-style" (with both hands) he asked that I be discreet when I pulled out my camera. He explained that they have a lot of high profile guests at the hotel and they don't want to jeopardize their privacy. Fair enough. And no, I didn't spot any of them nor did I ask him who exactly was staying at the hotel. You know they wouldn't release any names.

The rooms at the Mandarin Oriental are casual with a minimalist decor, beige walls and a yellow and white color palette, which gives the rooms a sunny, beach feel. The bedding is simple white cotton that is so comfortable, you won't want to get up ... even when it's to catch a flight to a dream getaway. Besides the impeccable service and view, the best part is the opulent marble bathroom with separate glass shower. The worst part is that local calls cost $1 and long distance calls are 75% above cost. At least they're honest about it; there's a sign right on the phone. TIP: Always use your cell phone or better yet, Skype when you're traveling. The TV was surprisingly outdated but it swiveled so you could watch it from bed or the couch (FYI: They are getting flat screens by the end of 2008). But I'm not so sure how many guests who stay here are eager to watch the boob tube when the hotel has a spectacular spa, restaurant(s), outdoor pool and makeshift beach with day beds.

The Mandarin Oriental's spa recently made Travel + Leisure's list of the best spas in the USA. The 15,000-square-foot, three-story spa has 17 private treatment rooms and six of them have floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the bay. They offer a whole slew of treatments, inspired by the ancient traditions of Ayurvedic, Balinese, Chinese, European or Thai cultures. My friend Natalie signed us up for a one-hour couple's massage ($360, includes tip), something I'm not usually a fan of because I find that you can't really relax but the therapists here were awesome! Not only were they strong yet gentle, but best of all, they were quiet so I wasn't distracted by Natalie or her therapist right beside me. The amazing treatment ended when the therapists shifted our heated electric massage tables into an upright seated position and opened the curtains for us to see the sparkling Miami skyline. In case you're curious, the separate men's and women's waiting/locker rooms have fresh fruit, iced tea, water, almonds and coffee table books. There are two showers and a steam room and each guest is given a little toiletry kit.

The Mandarin Oriental has five restaurants/bars. Natalie and I dined at their award-winning Azul restaurant, seated at one of the few patio tables overlooking the bay. For starters we enjoyed an amuse-bouche of oysters. Next, we had a golf ball-sized portion of lobster salad in a coconut shell ($23) and a softball-sized portion of braised beef short ribs with a side of black truffle ravioli ($43). As expected, the service was outstanding. The choco-trio dessert ($15) was divine. Without a doubt, Miami's Mandarin Oriental is as close to staying at a five-star Asian hotel without making the long flight. The only difference is the price; luxury hotels in Asia are so much cheaper. Mandarin Oriental, 500 Brickell Key Drive, Miami, Tel.: 305-913-8288.

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Pictures From

The Trip


Miami Mandarin Oriental

Front Desk


Mandarin Beach






View From Room


Sweet Desk


Old TV


Free Voss Water By The Bed




Couple's Massage


Look At That View


Miami Skyline


Lobster Salad


Braised Beef





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