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Floridians Checking into Condo Hotels for Short Vacations; No Stress in Getting There!

By James H. Burnett III, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jun. 8, 2008 - Mad rushes to the airport, too much luggage, flights with crying babies and smelly diapers, rental car hassles: After many fun but exhausting long-distance vacations, my wife and I decided we needed a break, with the sole focus of rest and relaxation -- and without the stress of getting there.

So Jill and I decided on a radical -- for us, anyway -- change. For the four-day break we were planning, we would go no further than 50 miles from home.

Lucky for us, South Florida's floundering housing market intersected with our desire for vacation change.

A friend recommended we try a condo-hotel. Initially I was skeptical. Staying in someone else's condo seemed too personal, sort of like eating off a stranger's plate, until my friend reminded me that hundreds, maybe thousands of people had slept and done who knows what else before me in the traditional hotels I've visited.

Gross thought. And point taken.

HYBRID LODGINGS

What we found was a burgeoning market for condo-hotel rentals. Not time shares, but condominium-hotel hybrids, whose owners live in them a few weeks or months each year and rent them by the day or week the rest of the year.

We also found some plain old condos and a few town homes whose owners would rather rent to vacationers than make no money from them at all while waiting for the real estate sales market to improve.

In the last week of May more than 400 such units in Broward and Palm Beach counties -- many of which had been for sale two years ago this time -- were listed as rental units on the vacation rental website www.vrbo.com. Miami-Dade County had more than 300 available rentals, and the Florida Keys had more than 500.

And according to Smith Travel Research, condo-hotel units for sale dropped nearly 30 percent in 2007 from the year before; this year, sales have nearly ground to a stop in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

A studio condo at Ocean Manor on the Beach in Fort Lauderdale was available in late May for $500 a week. The same unit might have sold for more than $250,000 in a healthy market two years ago.

The Bentley Beach Hotel in Miami Beach offered a luxury junior suite for $300-$500 per week, down from $680 per week this time last year.

PACKAGE DEALS

One condo-hotel, Ocean Sands Resort & Spa in Pompano Beach, even offers package deals these days, like traditional hotels. There's the Suite Life, a three-day, two-night stay in a deluxe studio suite, three full American breakfasts served in an on-site restaurant, two gourmet spa lunches in another Ocean Sands restaurant, two complimentary 50-minute massages, $25 in "spa dollars," two exercise classes, and fitness center access, for $299 per person.

And there is the Couples Escape, which includes three days and two nights in a deluxe studio suite, daily breakfast, one dinner for two, $100 in spa dollars and fitness center access, for $399 per couple.

Ultimately we chose Ocean Sands, because of the romantic setting and the fact that it's less than 35 miles from our home near Hollywood.

We had practical reasons for choosing Ocean Sands too. Jill is incapable of packing fewer than four suitcases for trips 200 miles or farther. But we managed to pack just a small backpack for our dog -- who was allowed to accompany us to the resort -- and a single small suitcase for ourselves.

"It is a common misconception that getting as far away from home as you can equates to more rest," laughs Amy Ziff, editor-at-large for Travelocity.com. "I've heard it all.

"People still go far for special trips to see special things, but now smart travelers are tailoring their trips, including distance, to suit their specific needs."

There's no way we could have afforded a place like Ocean Sands two years ago, because the condo and hotel-condo markets were too hot.

"It's important that the vacation traveler pay attention to what's happening in the permanent housing market, because it really does open up new options for shelter," Ziff says.

Our first impression of the high-rise neighborhood along AIA? Sleepy. No tourist-filled boardwalks. No nightclubs booming till the wee hours of the morning. Honestly? There wasn't much of anything around Ocean Sands, save other condos and hotels, and we loved it.

We've had bad luck with hotels on past beach vacations. You name it, we've had it: giant bugs that made kittens look tiny in a so-called luxury hotel, food served with hair on it, a broken thermostat that left our room feeling like a sauna.

HOMELIKE ATMOSPHERE

But it didn't take us long to warm to Ocean Sands' homey feel. The condos -- and yes, I peeked into some of the other units, because I'm a reporter and nosy -- are outfitted warmly like home.

The building has a full-service bar, two restaurants and a room service kitchen that prepares food late into the evening.

I was pleased because my wife was pleased -- with the mottled marble countertops in the kitchens and bathrooms, the size of the bathrooms (as big as walk-in closets), the white marble floors and the views.

Ocean Sands is designed so that every unit has a balcony view of the ocean. The building has 89 condo suites, ranging from studios, which comfortably sleep three, to one-, two-, and three-bedroom units, which sleep four, six and 10 people, respectively.

We were lucky enough to land a two-bedroom unit on the east side of the building, overlooking Ocean Sands' private beach.

"Private" is a bit of a misnomer, considering all beaches in Florida are technically public unless they are part of a private home plot, but this 100-yard strip is maintained by Ocean Sands staff and comes with cabanas, patio chairs and umbrellas.

We were only at Ocean Sands for a couple of days, but we managed to squeeze in plenty of activities. Considering we were so close to home, we decided not to research the neighborhood and to play it by ear.

We stayed at Ocean Sands during the day, eating in the on-site restaurants or sitting on the balcony and snacking on food we brought. Preparing our own snacks was a breeze, since each condo suite has a fully equipped kitchenette.

ON THE BEACH

When we weren't eating, we were playing in the ocean, debating whether or not to go parasailing through a company operating about 100 yards down the beach (we decided against it), and surfing the web on my laptop in an oceanside cabana, thanks to Ocean Sands' free wireless Internet service.

I spent time on the mini-putting green, not improving my golf game. At night, a drive of about 10 minutes landed us in Deerfield Beach, where we enjoyed great seafood at JB's on the Beach.

'The key to finding this sort of place, really is looking for all the 'comforts of home,' " Ziff says. "When those are your objectives, rather than restaurants being close by, or public transportation, or tourist destinations, then your search takes a different, simpler direction."

And speaking of comforts of home, well-behaved dogs are welcome at Ocean Sands. We brought Cheko, our 12-year-old Australian shepherd/heeler mix and took him for a run on the beach each evening.

And while my wife and I received massages and pedicures, -- yes, guys get their toes fixed too -- Cheko got a little work done at a mobile doggy spa that set up shop in the parking lot.

Also, with the peaceful atmosphere, lack of noise and ocean breezes, I found the perfect sleep elixer. And I slept better at Ocean Sands than I have for many years.

The bottom line for us is that "vacation" has been redefined to mean comfortable time off. And based on that definition, I predict in the future we will continue to stay close to home, when all we want is a little rest.

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To see more of The Miami Herald or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.herald.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, The Miami Herald

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