Sapphire Falls: Universal-Level Excitement with Caribbean Chill
Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando
I expected to be wowed, but not like this.
To set the scene of my recent trip to Sapphire Falls, understand that my tour of the property was part of a press event that spent the better part of the morning riding the new Skull Island: Reign of Kong and the newly redesigned Incredible Hulk roller coaster.
When planning a media trip to a theme park, there is an inherent danger in putting a tour of a hotel after the assembled media has ridden on two of the park’s most exciting rides. It’s literally amping up adrenaline levels to, what, look at duvet covers and marvel at color palettes?
It works, though, when the resort property is as extraordinary as Sapphire Falls.
It is not overstating the case to say that in Sapphire Falls, Loews and the team at Universal Orlando now have a property that is just as magical as the sort of experience guests expect in the theme park. I knew Sapphire Falls would be impressive, but I could not have imagined it being the highlight of an action-packed day.
Sapphire Falls is based around a Caribbean theme that is more than an homage. It is legitimately like being transported a few hundred miles south of the Orlando location. It’s done so seamlessly and intensively, that one doesn’t even notice it’s happening until leaving the resort and arriving “back to” Florida.
Let’s start with the dark wood, because everywhere one looks at Sapphire Falls is built with, inlaid or framed by naturally grained and deeply colored wood. It’s a very Caribbean look, and it’s a very luxurious-but-natural look that is modernized and further stylized with heavy doses of light, white and light blues and golden accents. The sunlight that permeates the resort throughout the day plays with this contrast and further enhances the beauty.
The rooms literally look, feel and smell as if the shrink wrap was just taken off of them, and while that’s likely to be a feature to be short-lived as the property ages, the freshness of the room is real and lasting. Because of the aforementioned whites and blues, it is as if the water outside the window is coming into the room itself, making the bedroom seem like an extension of the water outside rather than simply themed around it.
The buildings are “guesthouses” according to the Caribbean myth telling and the property features three silos which are reminiscent of sugar plantations. The spiral staircase down the silo from the pool, fitness center and gameroom area down to the brightly lit, glass-enclosed Amatista restaurant was a treat, and one can almost hear the flip-flopped joy that will echo throughout that silo for years to come.
If the falls is the thematic center of the park, the pool is the hub. It’s a zero-entry pool with a zero entry in the middle, mimicking a sandbar. It is, quite literally, as if Loews has brought the ocean to Orlando, as guests stood in the middle of the pool and used it just like families use sandbars miles to the east in the Atlantic. Babies played, friends laughed and drinks were sipped at the nearby Drhum Club Kantina.
The water from the pool collects and heads over the falls. It’s meant to foster connectivity between the resort and the water surrounding it, but symbolically, it’s almost like the fun being had inside is beckoning to those without. The vista of the falls—especially illuminated at night—is a major draw for the resort, and that symbolism only reinforces that fact.
For me, the most enticing piece of the property was Strong Water Tavern, the “watering hole” lounge just off of the lobby. Culturally speaking, food and drink is a major piece of the Caribbean lifestyle, and the connection at Strong Water Tavern is more than lip service.
The wall of Rum isn’t gaudy or excessive, because it’s curated to be the best of various rum styles. British rum, for instance is a derivative of molasses the British colonials once thought to be trash before they realized it could be fermented. French style, in contrast, is from the pure cane syrup. Then, there are mainland style rums and even local rums from nearby locales such as St. Augustine.
Of course, with rums from around the region, there is cause for cuisine just as diverse. The menu is separated with tapas-style delights from the same countries where the various rums originate—Jamaican Jerk Chicken, Cuban Ropa Vieja, Mexican Pork Tamales, Columbia Baked Arepas and so much more. The ceviche options are an incredible touch and balance out rich rum drinks with incredibly fresh and bright seafood.
Driving away from Sapphire Falls brings with it the same ennui as leaving the Caribbean itself—understanding that you’ve had a great time, but also dealing with the smack in the face of seeing reality once again. It also almost immediately beckons at the back of your mind, urging you to plan a return trip.
Loews has always had strong offerings on the Universal property, but Sapphire Falls is not only their strongest yet, but also the first time they’ve seemed to match the magic of the park.
More by Michael Schottey
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